When a Seattle mosque was burned down, an unlikely alliance of kids gathered outside to support those who had lost their place of worship. Holding signs that said, “We Stand with our Muslim Neighbors,” were kids with yarmulkes, hijabs, and others wearing golden cross earrings. These kids later came together at a Kids4Peace and Muslim Association of the Puget Sound-AMEN Conference, united in their fight against Islamophobia. They were here to learn the power of advocacy in the media.

Making sure her hijab was securely pinned in place, twelve-year-old Sabreen Tuku, a 14-year old American, Muslim-Ethiopian girl, stepped up to the podium, her voice unsteady. “I have a dream,” she began. “I dream that one day every person, no matter their ethnic group, religion, or sexual orientation, will be treated respectfully. One day, I want to walk down the street and not have to fear . . . only feel love and acceptance.”

In the workshops, at first kippas, headscarves, and crucifixes huddled in the foyer in their own separate groups. A gangly Jewish boy stuffed his gold Star of David neck chain under his sweatshirt. Then to break the ice, facilitators from all faiths seated the more than 120 youth into diverse clusters, ensuring gender, racial, and religious diversity. Initially, the teens found it hard to share their feelings in a group of strangers. There were awkward silences after kids spoke about their painful experiences of being bullied at schools. When they began to truly listen to one another, they hesitantly shared their stories – lockers defaced, racial and religious slurs, and even death threats.

Lisa, a secular student told a Muslim boy. “It’s just like when the Nazis burnt all the synagogues in Germany. You must be really scared now.”

Sumeya, another Muslim girl, spoke up, “As I walk the halls at school, I hear other students yell, “Allahu Akbar,” as a joke, not realizing they are making fun of my religion.”

Emilio, a Jewish 8th grader, was a convert. “It was a little weird at first,” he admitted. “And all the kids were a little uncomfortable, but soon everybody was laughing, talking and learning new things together.”

The microphone was passed from speaker to speaker of all faiths and ethnicities. Gripping the mike until her knuckles turned white, Sumeya finished, “It breaks my heart to know that somewhere, someone like me is getting beat up . . . it breaks my heart that somewhere a girl’s hijab is pulled off her head and called a bur-qua, a sign of oppression, which it’s not. When I am older I hope that young people won’t have to worry about theirs face getting smashed by a bottle….” her voice cracked.

SnapChat and Instagram messages soon connected the kids. A Jewish boy approached a Christian girl, his head slightly bowed.

“We should set up a chat page so we can do more,” he suggested. Hesitantly, they approached two Muslim boys standing at the entrance. Soon they were all texting on their phones, and one of the kid’s was admiring another’s Star of David.

“I’ve never seen one of those before,” he said.

Such inter-faith dialogue is vital, in an era where the current administration has moved to ban immigrants and refugees based on their religion. While business and education gurus are designing curricula to ensure that youth learn technological skill sets, educators ignore the ever-increasing importance of teaching school age kids the skills to manage conflict. If we can keep talking to each other, we can keep from breaking each other’s hearts.

 

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Susan Bloch is a writer and executive coach. http://www.globallearnings.com


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