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Muslim parents seek friendly school policies

Yasmeen Elsamra
Yasmeen Elsamra

CLIFFSIDE PARK, N.J. — Yasmeen Elsamra had a simple request: While her classmates were eating lunch, she wanted to go off by herself for a few moments to pray.

The 14-year-old was told she couldn't and went home distraught that afternoon in October 2003. Praying five times a day is a cornerstone of her Muslim faith.

"If I wasn't allowed to pray my second prayer at school, I couldn't do it at home," she said. "When school finishes, the third prayer begins."

Her family contacted a Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which asked the school district to reconsider. Eventually, the district acknowledged it had no policy preventing a student from praying on his or her own during free time and allowed Yasmeen to use an empty classroom to unfurl her prayer rug, face Mecca and touch her head to the floor in a few moments of worship.

Her case was part of a nationwide grassroots effort by Muslim parents to make public schools more friendly and accommodating to Muslim students. The movement has gained strength since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"The reality for many Muslim students in public schools is very difficult," said Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America. "It's highly stressful."

She said her children were sometimes taunted in their Connecticut school district.

"The kids will say 'Hey Osama, do you have a bomb? Are you going to blow us up?"' she said. "My daughter has had people try to pull her head scarf off, or say 'What are you doing with that rag on your head?' But they have also had friends who defended them."

Noor Ennab, a fifth-grader who attends the private Muslim Al-Noor School in New York City, said she was driven out of her public school by post-Sept. 11 harassment.

"Before that (the 2001 terror attacks) happened, we were treated so kind," she said. "Now it's like, 'You're a terrorist; get out of this country."'

Older students also have had problems. Debra Mason of Jersey City dropped out of Fairleigh Dickinson University's nursing program after she said she was told to remove her head-covering during patient rounds. The New Jersey civil rights division recently found probable cause to proceed with an investigation into whether the school violated her rights. The school declined to comment.

Some school districts are starting to take notice. A zero-tolerance policy on harassment of Muslim students was adopted by Florida's Broward County school board in March 2003, just before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

In February, Muslim community leaders led the Pledge of Allegiance at a San Antonio high school as part of a daylong conference on Islam.

Paterson, N.J., home of the state's largest Arab-American community, lets some students out of class early Fridays to attend prayers with their parents' permission, and is one of a handful of New Jersey districts that closes schools for Eid-al-Fitr, a Muslim religious holiday.

"You're seeing a lot of schools becoming more sensitive this way," said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Bassima Mustafa, a civics teacher in Paterson, said it is crucial that students feel comfortable and welcome in the classroom.

"A majority of our students are immigrants or the children of immigrants," she said. "It's going to spread as the population increases."

But despite a large Muslim student population in Baltimore, the school board voted 10-0 earlier this year against a proposal to add Eid to the school holiday calendar.

That disappointed Samira Hussein, a parent of four and an educator who helped nudge the Montgomery County school district in Maryland toward a more inclusive curriculum. She and others got the district to send teachers and administrators to annual Ramadan celebrations marking the holiest month of the Muslim calendar.

The teachers ate lunch at the celebrations and spoke about Islam, particularly what it feels like to fast while other children eat. Now, her kids and other fasting students may sit at a cafeteria table doing homework, playing games or just talking during lunch.