By: Meelan Mohsin one of Oakland’s Energyconverters (Meelan was the writer on this story reporting another student’s experience. Meelan conducted a series of interviews to capture the emotion this student felt all throughout her time as a student here in Oakland.)
I moved to the U.S. from Iraq when I was 11 years old. I only knew the basics in English, so the first few months of 6th grade at Roosevelt Middle School were hard enough on their own. Almost eight years ago, people weren’t as open to the idea of Arabs being “normal.” A lot of my classmates questioned everything I did. As soon as I learned a bit of English, I was finally able to communicate with some of the people around me.
I also slowly started to realize that my classmates were laughing at me and not with me.
After only a few months of living here, I found out what the term terrorist meant, what 9/11 was, and what a “turban” or “towel head” was in reference to. It almost seemed like it was normal to target those who had no idea what you said or what your words meant. I came to realize that I didn’t have any friends, that I no longer was respected by my classmates, nor did any of them actually understand how much their words hurt me and impacted my mental development in just a little under a year.
I missed a lot of school days during 6th grade. I was at the doctor’s office more than school, and when I actually went to school, I spent half of my days in the nurse’s office. No one really took into consideration that I was developing anxiety and clinical depression, all of my test results showed no signs of any sickness, but the thought of it being more of a mental issue than a physical one was never brought up. My mornings consisted of me begging myself not to feel nauseous and get up to go to school.
I became more worried about whether someone would say something mean to me in class. I worried that someone would stick another piece of gum in my hair. The anxiety took over, and my classes were no longer my priority which showed in my ailing attendance and collection of detentions. I didn’t have anyone that I could talk to that actually understood what I was going through the majority of the time, so I ignored it. I decided that being called terms like “terrorist” and ‘twin towers” around school didn’t define who I was. I know who I am. I’m a Muslim Arab living in America, and no one’s opinion of me will change my view of myself in any shape or form. To this day, I still struggle with the same things sometimes. I still have anxiety and depression, and they got worse over the years, but I learned to move on.
High school brought more intense challenges than middle school. My senior year was possibly the worst year, when I felt picked on by my own teacher, someone who actually had the type of authority to change other students’ perspectives.
When the Paris attack happened, and then the one in San Bernardino, I was singled out by this teacher every time these topics came up in class. I felt very unsafe. This teacher made me feel like I was the blame for these attacks. When I reported this to the principal, the teacher turned the other students against me, blaming me for getting him in trouble. That’s when I was singled out even more. My own friends didn’t want to talk to me anymore and isolated me studying or working on school projects together. A district representative asked me not to speak about it with other students so I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I felt nor was I able to explain myself to them. I stopped coming to school. Only at the very end of my senior year did I manage to feel comfortable again to go to school regularly and finish off the school year somewhat strong. The week after school ended, when I got my transcripts and diploma was the first time I finally felt safe and free from that suffocating environment.
As cliche as this might sound, these experiences helped shape who I am today. Now I am more comfortable than ever with my background and the country that I came from. I learned to be more accepting of others and to help out those in need as much as I can. I ended up joining a few social justice organizations around Oakland, and through them, I learned how to resist against the ignorance. I’m very thankful for my mentors and teachers that helped me pick myself up because, without them, I don’t think I would’ve been able to graduate or even be where I am today: in college pursuing my dream of becoming an architect.
There will always be people that disrespect my culture and me, but I have a story. My story is unique, and no one else has it. So with every new person I meet, I will gladly share my experience because it matters. I matter.
This originally appeared on the EnergyConvertors Medium blog.