Arab-American teens find stereotypes hard to bear

Terrorism, war fears foster misconceptions, they say

December 16, 2003|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

Ridwan Yaseen Tomhe is proud of his culture and his religion, but he knows that his family traditions set him apart from classmates at Boys' Latin School.

A first-generation Arab-American and a Muslim, Tomhe doesn't go to parties. He doesn't drink or smoke. And he fasts from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan.

He has enjoyed his time at Boys' Latin, where he is now a senior, an honor student and was one of the football team's captains. But his thoughts often turn to Sept. 11, 2001, a day when he says life changed for him, his family and other Arab-Americans.

This fall, he devoted his senior speech -- delivered before 264 upper-school students -- to the topic in hopes of trying to erase some of the racism and fear associated with Arab-Americans.

"The word `Arab' to some people is synonymous with the word `terrorist,' implying that all Arabs are terrorists," he told his fellow students. "This is absolutely in no way true."

He described the confusion that his Arabic name often causes, growing up in the United States with parents who are natives of Damascus, Syria, his visits to his parents' homeland and what life is like in that country.

"I have never once been berated or felt any prejudice for being American in Syria," he told the students. "I can't say the same for being Arabic in the United States."

Other Arab-American students at local private schools say that after the terrorist attacks, strangers stared or made hurtful remarks when they were with their families because they spoke a foreign language, had an accent or dressed differently.

Now, with fighting in Iraq and attacks by Muslim extremists in the headlines almost daily, those students say suspicions and misconceptions about their culture persist -- and, in some cases, have grown stronger.

Several students gathered recently at Boys' Latin to discuss their feelings and experiences.

"My mother was afraid to leave the house for a week after the Sept. 11 attacks because she wears a hijab" or head covering, said Tomhe, a Lutherville resident. "Students came up to me in school that day, asking what I had done. I know they were joking, but some people still perceive me differently."

Bryn Mawr senior Stephanie Kallab wants others to understand that "not all Arabs are Muslims, not all Muslims are Arabs and not all Muslims are terrorists."

"Everyone in this country was scared about the terrorists," she said.

Kallab, 17, of Towson was born in Beirut, Lebanon, but has lived in the United States for 12 years. She is Roman Catholic.

"There's an immediate assumption that I'm Muslim," Kallab said. "When I'm with my mother, we speak Arabic, and we often get asked where we're from. But I don't think it's meant to be cruel."

She said she believes it's just human nature to label others. Tomhe agrees.

"I'm known as `Ridwan, The Arab.' When I'm in the United States, people consider me Arabic, and when I visit Syria, I am considered an American."

Meena Al-Talib knows that being Arab-American and a Muslim sets her apart from others, but she said she doesn't get labeled at her school. A ninth-grader at Roland Park Country School, she said "some people just don't understand. But my friends know the differences."

Al-Talib, 14, of White Marsh said it was hard to watch the coverage of the war in Iraq. She said it was especially difficult for her parents, who are natives of that country and have relatives in Baghdad.

"I'm torn about the war because I love both countries," she said. "It's hard to watch what is happening over there because it is my parents' homeland. Now everything is so different."

Gamze Sonmez, 27, knows how perceptions can distort reality. Sonmez, a Muslim, emphasizes that people should not blame Muslims for what has happened.

A native of Ankara, Turkey, she is spending the year teaching science at Roland Park Country as part of the Fulbright Scholar Program. She said she has been treated well since arriving in the United States and has never been questioned about her background.

"People may expect me to act differently because I am Muslim, but I am not different," she said. "All Muslims should not be labeled as terrorists. The majority want peace."

The three teen students were raised in families in which religion has played a major role. They are more sheltered than many of their peers and the boundaries established by their parents have set them apart.

Kallab said it is a little scary to think about going to college next year because at Bryn Mawr she can talk with her friends about the differences in their backgrounds. She and Tomhe will probably go to college in the area because their families want them to stay close by.

"Family plays a huge part in my life," Kallab said. "They made me who I am."

Tomhe said that "one speech won't change the world." But officials at Boys' Latin said his address clearly resonated with the students, who gave Tomhe one of the longest ovations ever for a senior speech.

Tomhe's speech closes: "I dream of a future when Americans and Arabs no longer fear one another and can come together as fellow human beings."

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