In the Middle
This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
It was a calm, quiet afternoon in the summer of 2014. I was sitting in my office in Dearborn, Michigan, talking with a client. I froze as the caller described in chilling detail how her 13-year-old son was jumped in a middle school cafeteria by a group of kids. While attacking him, they screamed threats about ending his and his “raghead” mom’s life. The mother’s frantic pleas were made to me while she drove her son to the emergency room.
I sped to the hospital to meet the family. As I talked with the child about the attack, he felt the need to repeatedly remind me how he kept saying sorry as the attackers called him names and hit him. He said sorry even though he didn’t know what he was sorry for. That was two years ago. I still get regular updates from his mother about the small strides the child is making in “being normal again,” as she puts it, but I fear the long-term effects of this hate-fueled attack on his young life.
I am the executive director of the Michigan regional office of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, and my office receives cases of discrimination each and every day. Whether it is the Yemeni American assembly line workers who were denied time to break their fast during Ramadan; or the 14-year-old Syrian American student who was called “ISIS” by classmates; or the Lebanese American woman who was denied service at a place of business because she refused to remove her headscarf; or the student at a prestigious prep school who was verbally harassed, threatened with bodily harm, and told to “go back to your country,” my response as a leader is to never waiver in my willingness to combat this kind of hate. I vow to do so no matter where it rears its ugly head.
Sources: CAIR/PEW Forum/U.S. Census Bureau/Wikipedia
In my line of work, everything depends on meeting people who care. We have had many successes in the courtroom combatting bias, discrimination, and hate, but a lot of civil rights victories actually occur outside of the courtroom through cultivating relationships of trust and collaboration. Our allies include human resource professionals, principals at public schools, police officers, and others who are neither perpetrator nor victim but who find themselves, like me, in the middle.
Prior to accepting my current position, I considered the words President John F. Kennedy spoke when he accepted the nomination for President 56 years ago. He said: “We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.” I chose a career in civil rights because it was my belief that promoting justice and civil rights for Arab Americans would help my community find their way into the very light Kennedy sought. It is this promise of freedom and equality that the Constitution of this country ensures for all of us.
As the challenges facing us all grow, we must continue to open lines of communication and establish trust. It won’t be fast, and it won’t be easy. But we can do it. And we’ll do it together.