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They’re the typical 17-year-olds, scared about college but excited for the future. Some want to go to law school, others have plans for pre-medical degrees. They laugh in sync, tease each other, and are ruthless with their sarcasm.
When the Islamic call to prayer rings through the hallways on an afternoon in April, they fill the masjid—a grand prayer hall with dark green rugs, high ceilings, and Islamic calligraphy on every wall—with other students at their school, who are as young as six years old. They sit in rows, wearing matching uniforms of black and white collared shirts with brown slacks, eyes fixed on the imam giving the Friday khutba, the Arabic word for sermon. In this moment, the Muslim ban, the rapidly increasing hate crimes, and angry voters’ racist rhetoric don’t exist. All that matters at the Austin Peace Academy are the children, their education, and God.
“You can just be yourself here,” senior Arifeen Saeed later said. “You don’t have to worry about what other people think about your religion. You can share your ideas and learn from each other.”
The Austin Peace Academy is the only Muslim school within the city limits of Austin, Texas, educating K-12 students on topics ranging from comparative religion to chemistry to speech and debate. APA is a place where students can access a quality education—it’s the second highest-ranked private school in the area—while also learning what it means to be Muslim in America.
Muslim-American children constantly fear bullying, being shunned by their classmates, and feeling distant from their own religion, especially since 9/11 and even more so after Trump’s rise to power. But when your peers are also Muslim, those concerns virtually disappear. You can let down your guard during school hours. Students at APA told me how the entire academy feels like one big family where you don’t have to be afraid to ask for help. Despite Texas having the biggest Muslim population in the country, many of the students believe that finding a sanctuary for young Muslims in such an aggressively conservative state—and such a white, segregated city—is a blessing.
The school lets “me develop my identity without having to be embarrassed, in ways that are healthy for all of us, [that are] not compromising who I want to be,” senior Maryam Khawar said.
But the more tightknit the community, the more likely it becomes a target. When Islamophobes aren’t attacking Muslims themselves, they’re attacking the places they go to pray. In the first three months of 2017, more than 32 mosques were vandalized across the country, according to a report by the Council for American Islamic Relations. That’s almost three mosques a week. Many of them don’t have the infrastructure to defend themselves in a time when hate crimes against Muslims have reached post-9/11 era levels.
In March, a suspect was arrested in what a judge called a hate-crime arson of a mosque in Victoria, Texas, only two hours away. The Islamic Center of Lake Travis, a 30-minute drive from APA, had been under construction for a few months before being burned down in February. The Austin Peace Academy staff fears their school could be the next target.
“They could burn a mosque down, sure,” said principal and APA founder Diana Abdi, shaking her head. “But if you burn a mosque that’s also a facility for a school, it’s devastating. These people won’t distinguish between a mosque and a school. It’s worrisome and scary.”
The academy has launched a campaign to raise funds for security increases, which includes building a wall that stretches around the entire campus, a new security camera system, and other means of protection. The cost is estimated to be almost $100,000. So far, they’ve only raised $1,300 through their online fundraiser, Abdi told me with a sarcastic laugh.
“We wish we could put these funds more into education resources for the kids, but day by day, the security situation [for Islamic schools] is getting worse and worse,” Abdi said. “It’s not improving.”
For most of the 21st century, Muslims across the world have faced intense scrutiny and aggression from the West, taking blame for the extremism of groups claiming to represent their faith. And, in many ways, children have been hit the hardest, having to grow up hearing right-wing media calling their religion violent, hateful, and cancerous.
For these reasons, a Muslim school like APA can be a haven from hate and alienation. But in an increasingly charged and fractured political environment, it’s also a reminder of the delicate balance between hypervisibility and isolation. Abdi emphasized that it’s important for the students to be engaged in non-Muslim communities to avoid othering themselves—something that requires patience and bravery in the face of suspicion.
I can remember what part of my faith I lost for each year I was in public schools. Seventh grade is when I stopped attending a mosque. Freshman year of high school is when I stopped fasting. Sophomore year is when I gave up on praying altogether. By the time I graduated, saying I was a Muslim felt like a lie—I had given up on everything I believed in, and traded it for acceptance from my white classmates.
It’s no secret that public schools are more difficult for Muslim children. Nearly half of Muslim parents in the U.S. said their children in grades K-12 have been bullied, according to a report conducted this year by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Shortly after the election, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for an investigation into a claim that a Muslim elementary student had been physically assaulted by a teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. A month prior, a father of a seven-year-old Muslim boy accused a group of students of assaulted his son in Cary, North Carolina. Last August, school officials allegedly forced a Muslim boy at a New York City middle school to admit he was part of ISIS.
Far more often, these incidents are covered up or unreported. In many public schools, like the three I attended in South Austin from fourth grade to my senior year of high school, bullying creates a culture of silence. Teachers rarely get involved, and reaching out for help only makes the bullying worse. When you’re one of the only Muslim students in your school, which is often the case, it’s difficult to proudly claim your identity without being a social pariah.
I made the mistake of being too loud about my religion in my earlier years of public school, happily answering questions about what it’s like to be Muslim. There were children who are genuinely inquisitive, but then there were children who were cruel—calling me typical slurs like “camel jockey” or “terrorist”—and even violent.
There wasn’t a year in middle school when I didn’t keep my head down in the hallways to avoid getting jumped by classmates. Hiding was never enough. They always found me. I tiptoed my way through semesters—behind the locker room, in the cafeteria, on the school bus. I dodged rocks and fists on a daily basis, and sometimes had to clean blood off my clothes in the bathroom after class.
Fighting back became my only option, and the constant hostility changed the trajectory of my childhood. I was in and out of detention and suspended several times, even though I never started the fight. Innocence is a luxury Muslim children are rarely afforded.
Whether it’s behind the playground or on national TV, anti-Muslim sentiment has always weaponized shame. I rarely spoke to the few other Muslims in my schools out of fear it would attract more attention to our foreign-ness. The memory of the way assimilation was forced on us makes me wish I knew about Austin Peace Academy growing up.
There are more than 200 Islamic schools across the nation, according to a report by Boston University. Many of these schools were created with the same intention as APA, and are part of a national network, the Islamic Schools League of America, that helps organize and provide resources to the institutions.
As these communities grow, so do the number of institutions that support them. But APA has been around for decades; local Muslims founded the school in 1997, before the outpouring of Islamophobia after 9/11. But the desire to feel welcome has always been a priority for Muslims who face alienation.
“We created this school because we wanted kids to hold on to their identities and stay Muslim,” founder Diana Abdi said. “Kids in the USA are in a melting pot, yes, but they are also a lost generation. We want them to be proud of being Muslims. Kids in public schools have avoided saying they’re Muslim, even before 9/11.”
APA senior Suhaib Shah, went to a public school in Dallas that had only three Muslim students out of 900 kids. “Coming from that to an all-Muslim school,” she said, “makes it easier to ask questions. It’s beautiful for Muslim people to get to come together and just feel together.”
While the students I spoke to all agreed that there are more benefits than risks of being in an all-Muslim school, they acknowledged that the school could create an sort of echo chamber, especially for those who began school at APA. This is a concern for many institutions that serve specific demographics, like all-female or all-black colleges. The kids said they weren’t too worried about the future outside of the Muslim academy.
“Going off to college, there’s the fear that you’re no longer in this bubble anymore,” said senior Nadine Aljamal. “It’s going to be good for the students at APA to know they won’t be surrounded by Muslims all the time, but that’s okay, because there will always be someone who supports us.”
So far, Muslim schools have combated a sense of feeling exposed by exercising hypervigilance. The Aqsa all-girls Islamic school in Bridgeview, Illinois put itself on lockdown the entire week following the implementation of President Donald Trump’s first travel ban. The Islamic Center of Naperville in Illinois, which also is a school, recently increased security by adding a full-time security guard. A group of mosques in Atlanta, some of which have K-12 education, established a Security Committee at the beginning of the year to combat threats, and meet quarterly to discuss potential security enhancements. They’re all considering making these changes permanent.
Meanwhile, the teenagers at APA are full of optimism and fearlessness that mirror the values taught by the Islamic faith. They all said the aggression has made them into more powerful, resilient people.
“I feel that Muslim kids in America have had to grow up so much faster than other kids,” Khawar said. “We have to be politically active. If we’re silent, we’re not gonna feel satisfied with who we are.” When Khaware was 12, she remembers feeling “very helpless. I was embarrassed; I didn’t even like interacting with people. I thought everyone had this preconceived notion of who I was. Now I’m at a place where I’m proud of my identity.”
The connection these students are able to find with their identities is enough to ease Abdi and the rest of the faculty’s concerns, even for just a moment. Muslim sanctuaries are targets in America, but these Muslim sanctuaries will never cease to exist.
“I just pray and hope they hold onto their identity, that they always have empathy and tolerance,” Abdi said. “Not for the next 50 years will Muslims be able to feel completely safe in America. It will take some time, but I’m hoping that at least my grandkids will know peace.”
Adam Hamze is an Arab-American journalist from Austin, Texas. He’s written for the Houston Chronicle, VICE News, and Huffington Post Politics.
This feature is part of Fusion’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.