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In Indianapolis, IN Arlington High School students Jose Valera (from left), Oscar Zambrano and Frank Minor goof around with a ballon game during Vida Joven, a Young Life club conducted in Spanish.
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July 3, 2010

Aaron, Nadiya, Amal and Hadeiyah would all stand out in a crowd. All are local teenagers who wear religious symbols and clothing to represent their beliefs.

Aaron Zelikovich, 18, is a recent graduate of North Central High School and an active member of the Jewish Community Center. He often wears a yarmulke, or skullcap, to display devotion to his faith, Judaism.

“It’s meant to remind us that God is always above us, as well as he’s always watching us,” Aaron said. “So therefore we are more inclined to behave properly and do the right things, as we are instructed to do in the Bible.”

Wearing a yarmulke is Aaron’s way of showing humility to God, but also confidence in his beliefs.

“It creates a sense of pride, like I’m Jewish and this is how I show that I’m Jewish, and that’s for the whole world to see.”

Nadiya Tai, 17, Amal Omar, 18, and Hadeiyah Ameen, 18, also display pride in their religion, Islam. Each wears a hijab, a head covering that literally translates to “curtain” or “cover” intended to preserve a woman’s modesty. While all of them attend the Islamic MTI School of Knowledge in Indianapolis, each had attended public school when they were younger.

Like Aaron, Amal says she started wearing the hijab almost six years ago to confirm her faith. “To me, it’s more of a reminder of how I live my life. It’s kind of a constant reminder throughout the day that I’m Muslim and I have certain ways that I act and how I represent Islam,” she said.

Nadiya, who is of Indian heritage, agreed. “I recently started wearing a hijab, and it actually makes me feel very proud of my religion because instead of me being called a Hispanic or a Catholic or a Hindu, I am called a Muslim because of my scarf.”

However, not everyone recognizes their clothing as a symbol of modesty or humility. All of the girls report facing some kind of discrimination, especially when they were younger.

For example, Amal recalled the unease her hijab created among her friends’ parents, though they were Muslim, too.

“There were probably 20 or so Muslim girls that I was always with when I started” wearing a hijab, she said. “For two years I was the only one, and that was terrible ’cause we would go to a party or something, and all the moms would be like complimenting the girls, ‘Oh, your hair looks nice.’ They’d look at me up and down and then they’d just say, ‘OK, hi, nice to see you.’ So it was kind of like I didn’t have any support.”

Hadeiyah has worn a hijab since she was young. She remembered having her scarf pulled off when she attended public school. “During gym class, this one girl came up behind me and she pulled off my hijab. And my friend gives me this look and she walks up to the girl and she’s like, ‘If you ever touch her scarf again …’ All my other friends were really mad. They were like, ‘We’re never gonna talk to her again.’”

For Nadiya, it was her own relatives who gave her a hard time. She said her cousins criticized her for wearing a hijab like her mother. “They think we’re extremists,” she explained.

No one bothers Aaron about his yarmulke, though he says it does give some kids the opportunity to tease him. “There are a few people who make Jew jokes, but since I’m a big kid, like I’m physically strong and I’m more of a strong character, most kids respect me and don’t want to start fights with me,” he said.

Though not all of them were wearing hijabs at the time, the girls said they faced increased hostility after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the most extreme case, Amal described being physically attacked at her public school.

“I was in ninth grade when 9/11 happened, and I was beat up at school, and this is in like small town Fishers, Indiana. I was the only Muslim around and like I still have a scar from getting my head smashed on the school bus,” she said.

While they do stand out in a crowd, the girls agreed that most people treat them the same as any other customer in a restaurant or mall, except for a few stares and rude comments. However, they understand why some fear Muslims and see the headscarf as a threat.

“I can understand why some people are afraid because when you look at how the media portray Muslims and Islam, from the first view you would get nervous and afraid,” Hadeiyah said. “But once I smile at them, they kind of get this real relaxed feeling like, ‘Oh, she’s like any other person, she just looks a little different.’ Just a scarf. Just a hijab, you know.’”

Not all the stares are ill-willed, either.

“You get a lot of stares, but as I’m getting older I’m realizing it’s not because they’re hating on us or they’re judging us; it’s more because they’re curious,” Amal said.

Despite the occasional awkward moment, all of these youth appreciate the freedom to wear what they want.

“The U.S. says we’re a place of all these religions. You can come here and learn from each other,” Hadeiyah said.

“That’s one of the great things about public school is that any religion can be practiced, so whatever you believe in is what you’re able to practice,” added Aaron. “If you were to take that away from me, that would be taking a lot of my personality, a lot of who I am, away from me.”

To read about one young women's fight to wear her hijab click here.

Reporters Allison Albrecht, 11, and Riley Childers, 12, contributed to this story.

Copyright 2010 Y-Press

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