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November 2, 2007


DEARBORN, Mich. -- Zeinab Sleiman has faced modern teenage temptations, such as drinking and partying. What helps her keep her distance is the guidance set down by her Muslim upbringing.

The 18-year-old graduated from Fordson High School, a public school here. Most students are Arab-Americans, and many are Muslims like Zeinab.

"I think my religion helps me in that way that it forbids it, so I just know that it's wrong," said Zeinab, who served on the mayor's youth advisory council. "I think, 'In the long run, is this going to help me?' If not, then I don't think I should be choosing it."

While most Arab and Muslim youths share this view, balancing beliefs and American society can be challenging, especially because many non-Arab-Americans are still ignorant and suspicious of Islam.

David Crumm, who has been the religion reporter for the Detroit Free Press for 21 years, sees those challenges all the time in his news reporting. He said non-Muslim Americans knew almost nothing about Muslims in their communities in the 1980s.

But since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Crumm said, Americans are more aware of Muslim Americans, and that's both good and bad.

"Nine-eleven was a tragic event for all Americans, for people around the world, and especially for people in this community, because they knew, and most thinking people knew, that even though these people who committed these terrorist acts claimed to be Muslims, the claim that they made was not really the true Islam," he said.

Speaking with kids from high schools and youth organizations in the Dearborn area, Y-Press learned about some of the stereotypes many Americans hold about Arab-Americans and Muslims.

The issues affecting Arab teens range from everyday high school challenges to discrimination.

The Abusalah family, natives of Palestine, ordered their meals at a restaurant and watched as the white family next to them got more attention from the waiter: Their order was taken first, the food arrived faster, and the waiter was simply friendlier. He barely smiled at the Arab-American family.

"It's all the time," said Reema Abusalah, 15. "We always get the dirty looks and stares. It's not around Dearborn usually, but when we leave Dearborn, we see people who are not Arab stare at us, give us dirty looks and look funny at us."

Reema feels that people who don't live in diverse communities such as Dearborn rely on biased opinions to generate a picture of Arab-Americans.

For example, a lot of movies cast Arabs as villains, and the news media reports more negative stories about Arabs than positive ones.

Yusef Saad, 16, saw a documentary called "Real Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People." Arabs come out looking bad in such films as "Back to the Future" and even the Disney movie, "Aladdin," Yusef said.

For Muslim teenage girls wearing the traditional Islamic hijab, or headscarf, stereotypes are sometimes intensified.

"They think that all Muslim girls are oppressed and forced to put on the hijab. Well, it's actually the other way around," said Nour Hijazi, 17. "We want people to look at us and not evaluate how we look, but actually how we are and the way we treat people."

Noor Salem, 14, gets angry when news programs link reading the Quran to suicide bombing, because she knows that's not what Islam stands for.

"(Discrimination) affects everyone because once you start discriminating on one type of person, that person might discriminate back and you might pass it along," Noor said. "You know, discrimination and racism are contagious."

Crumm is hopeful that a thoughtful education will help broaden understanding of Islam. "There are some people who have a really intelligent and balanced view of diversity and the Muslim community. There are some who still have a very bigoted view because they haven't learned enough, or what they've learned has been inaccurate or skewed," he said.

Jamal Agemy, 15, is half-Lebanese, half-black, and sometimes has experienced dual prejudices from the two cultures. His mother is a Christian, and his father is a Muslim.

"The thing is with the religion, Arab people and Christian people agree on almost 97 percent of the story in the olden days," Jamal said. "And the three percent that they argue on they . . . explode on it and throw the 97 percent out and continue to argue."

The discrimination young Arab-Americans face actually has a plus side, several Arab youths said.

"I think discrimination has made us all a bit stronger because we experience a little bit more than regular people do," Jamal said. "I think it prepares us a little bit more, and it helps us become more mature when the time is right."

It's also made him become an outspoken advocate for his people.

"We're not the people you see on CNN every day, bombing the airports," Jamal said. "We have a conscience, and we are good people. You know, we wake up in the morning and we put on our pants one leg at a time like everyone else."

A lot of these area teens said they enjoy going to malls, cruising through town, and hanging out at each other's homes. Then there are movies, National Honor Society, music, talent shows, part-time jobs and sports teams.

But what makes the following five teenagers different from a typical group of friends is how varied their family backgrounds are from one another.

Ashraf Aboukhodr's family is originally from Lebanon. Yusef, 16, is Arab-American too, but he has family roots in Morocco. Both boys are Muslim. Then, there's Krystal Rivera, who is Mexican-American and Catholic; Katie Stephens, 17, who is Polish-American and Catholic; and Ramona Balaie, 17, who is Romanian-American and a member of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Katie didn’t really think much about the diversity in her community and among her friends until she was a delegate to Girls State, which teaches adolescents from all over the state about the American political system and patriotism.

“All the girls that we met were from small towns where their high school was full of maybe 200 kids and all white with the same ethnicity,” she said. “I didn’t realize how lucky I am to actually know people of different races and cultures.”But diversity doesn't always result in everyone getting along like these friends. According to these five, fights sometimes break out at Crestwood High School -- Arab-Americans fighting blacks; other times, it's whites versus blacks.

"People like to pick fights based on people's religions, and they'll say, 'Oh, an Arabic kid did it,' " Krystal said.

Other times, kids from different backgrounds just distance themselves from one another.

"If you look around, you can see tables (in the cafeteria) where it's all Arabs. All African-American people sit together. People try to say that they're not racist, or they're trying to be diverse, but it's not really like that," Krystal said, pointing out she and her friends are the exception.

But Katie says students at her school get along most of the time.

"The amount of fights we have is minimal. . . . There's good stuff, but people just don't talk about that," she said.

And school officials try to support the diversity, agreed the kids.

“There are a lot of Arabs in our school. And to make them feel more welcome they sell Arabic food like hummus and tabouli at the salad bar. It sucks anyway,” Yusuf said – proof that one thing universal among U.S. teens is griping about school cafeteria food. Ashraf is glad everyone in the group is different. Otherwise, it would be too easy to believe people's prejudiced comments or accept media stereotypes.



"Usually, it's the bad things that get brought out and not the good things," he said. "But when you meet and get to know somebody of a different culture you find out -- hopefully -- that the person is a good person."



Joanna Connelly, 16, is Episcopalian and another Dearborn teen who likes having a variety of friends from different backgrounds.



But she never realized how much she liked the distinct aspects of Arab-American life all around her until she went out of town for a couple of weeks. She saw a woman wearing a hijab, which immediately brought back a nostalgic sense of home.



REPORTERS: Rachel Gardner, 12; and Jake Thornburgh, 14.


Copyright 2007 Y-Press

Follow up story suggestion
I was flipping channels today and saw a story about Muslims in Dearborn who are speaking out against the attempted terror attack that occurred over Detroit (and Dearborn) on Christmas. I thought it would be interesting to hear from the Muslim youth in the community about their views on the attempted attack and other related topics like Afghanistan, Yemen, body scanning at airports, misconceptions about Islam, etc. This could be a timely story and you would already have many contacts from your last project. Keep up the good work!
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