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“Aren’t you hot?”
“Were you forced to put that on your head?”
“How many scarves do you have?”
These were all questions I had received upon making my decision to wear the hijab, or Muslim headdress. However, there was one question that had not been asked. The answer had been lounging in the back of my mind since July, dangling on the edge of my tongue and waiting to exercise.
And finally, “Why do you wear that?” accompanied with a circular motion around the head. I looked up and found a boy staring back at me, wearing a genuine expression on his face, one of solemn curiosity.
I had been preparing for this question for months, yet I did not want to launch into a 20-minute speech preaching about my religion, so I opted for a relatively simple answer.
“I wear this,” pointing to my scarf, “because it’s a really important part of my religion. It represents modesty, so people won’t judge me by my body shape or appearance, but they’ll like me for my personality and character.”
An uncomfortable silence followed. “Does that make sense?” I prodded.
He smiled thoughtfully. “Yeah, it actually does.” I breathed a sigh of relief and a wave of satisfaction washed over me as I realized I had taken a huge step toward reaching my goal.
More experiences similar to this one arose, yet one in particular seemed to clear away the uncertainty of my dreams and aspirations. Every Wednesday the Global Relief club would drive down to El Cajon, California and tutor Iraqi refugees at Emerald Middle School. It became my favorite day of the week—the eager children waiting for us outside the classroom, the Arabic circulating around the room in rapid breaths, and the feeling of contentment I received when I knew I had helped someone.
That Wednesday was different though. As we approached the regular classroom, I noticed a small girl standing alone against the wall, staring down at her sneakers.
I walked over to her, smiled, and said hello. She replied back in a small voice, and from her accent, I deduced that she had recently immigrated. I knew I could never imagine what she had been through, but I immediately felt a connection to her. In that scared, self-conscious girl, I saw my previous self.
Her name was Rana, and she had the quiet, nervous voice I had adapted when I started wearing the hijab. She avoided direct eye contact and almost all conversations that were not in Arabic. My constant attempts to engage her in conversation were dismissed. Communication with her was difficult. While I tutored her, we struggled to understand each other, but after experimenting a few Arabic words in a horrible accent, I managed to make her smile. I learned to say, “Is this right or wrong?” and “friend.”
In retrospect, I learned many new Arabic words, but those held no hope with my terrible language skills. Instead, Rana taught me other things. By the end of the year, Rana was speaking English at a fast pace, and, laughing, I had to tell her to slow down so I could understand her. She bickered with young boys who were bothering her, and giggled with other girls her age. The same girl who was standing alone against the wall was now chattering away in the large group of kids that waited for us outside the classroom. I watched her grow, and in a way, Rana showed me how much I had grown in the past year as well.
Coming from a Muslim background and wearing the hijab has had a lasting impact on who I am, and my dreams of who I wish to be. An ordinary engagement with a peer, a learning experience with a young girl, and the feelings that followed pushed me in the direction of helping others, breaking down barriers, and overcoming communication obstacles. I have learned to communicate with and relate to people who may not be in my immediate religious circle, yet have faced similar experiences of discovering identity and trying to fit in.
After a long year of struggling to blend in with 2,500 students, I have not succeeded, yet this “failure” has benefited me in the long run. I am now not afraid of what people think of me, I can speak my opinions without stuttering, and I do not hesitate to make silly faces at friends across the classroom, just to earn a smile.
At some point in each of our lives, we have stared up at the tall, intimidating walls of difference, contemplating the best way to jump, climb, or dig under them to make it to the other side. Some may walk away from these walls, ignoring wonderful opportunities to meet someone who may be different from them, but someone who, nonetheless, they may be able to form a connection with. Our ability to tear down these walls, break out of our molds, and communicate with and relate to others is what truly makes us unique, social beings, and I believe that, with the help of many, including Rana, I have succeeded.