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Amid Gaza war, South Bay Palestinian, Muslim students reach out to each other – The Mercury News


Amid Gaza war, South Bay Palestinian, Muslim students reach out to each other – The Mercury News

Editor’s Note: This article was written for Mosaic Vision, an independent journalism training program for high school students who report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

They want to display pride in their Palestinian identity. They want to educate their peers about Palestinian people and culture. And they want to reach out to fellow Palestinians and Muslims in America.

As the war in Gaza intensifies and the death toll and suffering rise, Palestinian and Muslim South Bay high school students are expressing their fears and hopes via social media and school clubs. Amid heated divisions over the war, students hope to create safe spaces, and build empathy and dialogue across campuses.

Even those who have not experienced hatred in recent months worry. Jenna Ershied was upset when her 11-year-old cousin in Mountain View was confronted after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. A classmate said accusingly, she recounted, “Are you proud of what you did?” For Ershied, the confrontation recalled similar incidents over her Palestinian identity that made her, as her cousin did, feel bewildered, hurt and scared.

“I’m always worried about the people around me and if they might take what I’m saying out of context, rather than having a meaningful conversation with someone one on one,” Ersheid said.

Nationwide, the Council on American Islamic Relations tallied over 2,000 reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bias in the two months after Oct. 7.

At Mountain View High School, junior Iman Zia organized a vigil in December for both Palestinian and Israeli victims. She invited speakers and recited a poem she had written. Zia was grateful to see students, parents and teachers of various backgrounds attend.

“I said, ‘it doesn’t matter if you’re Palestinian or Jewish, this is a human rights issue, so we need to hold hands and join together,’” Zia said. Some people cried. “I feel like a lot of people took the message of the vigil with them.”

At other schools, however, some students encountered opposition when they tried to plan events about the crisis. Cupertino High junior Hana Bahnas planned a meeting to allow students to color paper Palestinian flags to educate students about Palestinian culture. A vice principal ordered her to take down social media posts advertising the event, and some online commenters accused them of trying to teach lies. Only two teachers came to their defense.

The student Middle Eastern and North African Club canceled the event.

“It felt really frustrating because we didn’t even say anything about Israel or Hamas,” said Bahnas, club president.

Even students who have not experienced discrimination say they fear for their safety and worry about hate crimes and hate speech.

Still, others prioritize speaking out in hopes of uplifting their peers to do the same.

“You want to talk, you want to advocate, but you also live in that fear of what will happen,” said Noor Al Dimassi, a senior at Westmont High School in Campbell. “I will still post about it nonstop hoping that at least one person benefits from my posts and is able to post on their platform to cause a domino effect.”

For students and employees experiencing discrimination at their workplaces and schools, CAIR provides “Know Your Rights” toolkits and template letters to help hold conversations about the crisis. It also offers legal services. Senior Civil Rights Attorney Jeffery Wang urges students to use their voice to ensure safe learning environments.

“It’s important that we also make sure that schools are being held accountable, to make sure that they’re creating equitable learning environments where students feel safe and welcome,” Wang said.

CAIR San Francisco Bay Area Executive Director Zahra Billoo believes that through holding conversations, students can build empathy across different perspectives.

“It is also important for high school students to know that they have the gift of access to people who disagree with them  — people who are curious to learn and people who can be convinced,” Billoo said. “High school students should speak up because there are many that are willing to learn.”

Some students have chosen to  present themselves as visibly Muslim by wearing the hijab. While Zia at Mountain View High was initially nervous to put on the headscarf in public after Oct. 7, she said she became more confident as she engaged more in advocacy.

Initially she worried about acts of hatred targeting Muslims. In January she stopped feeling scared, Zia said. Now, she said other women tell her she inspired them to wear the hijab. “Wearing the hijab opened new doors for people,” she said.

Bahnas also began wearing the hijab recently, inspired by the courage of Palestinian women who wore it amid the crisis.

“There are probably only three people at my school wearing the hijab,” Bahnas said.

As an Egyptian student, Bahnas’ heart goes out to those affected by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. She feels a responsibility to voice her concerns and advocate for the Palestinian cause.

“I can’t just sit back and see everything happening while turning a blind eye,” Bahnas said. “This is just being a basic human. It isn’t about being Arab or Muslim. It is not that I have an attachment to Gaza as I am not Palestinian. But it could have been any of us.”

Khadeejah Khan is a senior at Santa Clara High School. Joshua Cedro is a junior at Santa Clara High School.

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