Reporters find more similarities than diversity, by 8-18 Media

Two Muslims, two Catholics and a Romanian-Orthodox are sitting in a room singing a song about cake. No, it’s not the opening line of a bad religious joke. Actually, the five are friends from Dearborn. They laugh, joke, talk and sing like any other group of teens.

The Dearborn area holds one of the largest concentrations of people of Arab ancestry in the United States, and 8-18 Media went there to talk to Muslim youth about their different backgrounds and what effect it has on their friendship.
0709818But it doesn’t seem to make much, if any, difference. That was a common theme that came up in most of the interviews. Islam is unfamiliar to most Americans, and, as a result, it can be hard to understand. It has become a religion that is easily stereotyped and, in some cases, feared.
Many 8-18 Media questions had to do with discrimination, misconceptions and stereotypes. But at the end of the week, the 8-18 Media team didn’t come away with a long list of differences, but a list of similarities.

Jamal Agemy, 16, attends Fordson High School. His mother is Catholic and his father is Muslim.
“One thing I want everybody to know is that [Muslims] are good people,” Agemy said. “We’re not the people you see on CNN bombing airports. We have a conscience, and we are good people.”
Agemy has studied both faiths and has a real understanding of just how similar they are.
“Arab people and Christian people, well most of the Christians, agree on basically ninety-seven percent of the whole type of story from the olden days,” Agamey said. “And the three percent that they argue on, they tend to take that three percent, explode on it, and throw the ninety-seven percent out and continue to argue.”
Mohammad Ali Elahi is the Imam (spiritual leader) at the Islamic House of Wisdom near Dearborn. He agrees that people can fail to see the similarities and instead concentrate on the differences.
“Islam is the closest religion to Christianity and they don’t know that in the whole world, there is no religion closer to Christianity than Islam,” Elahi said. “And no other religion respects Jesus and recognizes Jesus and Mary.”
Ashraf Aboukhodr, 17, is Muslim but attends a Catholic school. He believes that Islam is not a faith that promotes hostility towards other religions.
“It’s actually written in our Qur’an (the Islamic holy book) that we should respect other religions,” Aboukhodr said. “It’s not a violent religion. It’s a very peaceful religion.”
Yusef Saad, 16, agreed.
“About Muslims, obviously we’re not terrorists. It’s totally against our religion to do anything terrorist-like,” Saad said. “Also, the prophet Mohammed said that if you hurt anybody, then it’s like you’re destroying mankind.”
Aboukhodr and Saad are the two Muslims in the group of five friends mentioned at the beginning of this story. Aboukhodr finds that when you ignore the stereotypes, an individual from another culture can be very much like you or any other human being.
“I think that if you never make contact with another culture or religion, all you have to go off of is word of mouth and the media, and they both play a role,” Aboukhodr said. “It’s the bad things that get brought out and not the good things most of the time. So that is bad. But if you were to meet somebody who is of a different culture you’d find out, hopefully, that the person is a good person.”
Living in Dearborn gives Aboukhodr, Saad and the other three members of their group, Katie Stephens, 17, Ramona Balaie, 17, and Krystal Rivera, 17, countless opportunities to meet people of other backgrounds. The diversity of the area has made them and many of its other residents much more accepting of other cultures and religions.
“I do think that coming from a place like we do, we’re more light-hearted about being able to mess with each other,” Stephens said. “Some people do take it more seriously and are mean about it.”
Balaie said they know the things that should be kept to themselves.
“We think in a different way, but I think that we’re more open with each other because we’re more diverse,” Balaie said.
The diversity of the friends goes beyond faith; their cultures are just as diverse. Saad is from Morocco, but his family also lived in Sierra Leone and Iran before moving to the United States. Aboukhodr is of Lebanese descent. Balaie, who is Romanian-Orthodox, was born in Romania and moved to the United States when she was nine. Rivera is of Mexican descent. Both Rivera and Stephens are Catholic. Stephens is what someone might call a typical American, someone with a mixed background. Rivera, Stephens and Aboukhodr were all born in the United States. One might think the diversity of this group is uncommon and very significant, but to them it doesn’t make much difference.
“I wouldn’t mind learning about other cultures, but we never get into discussions about it,” Rivera said. “One time I did ask Yusef about it. We talked about it for like five minutes and got distracted. We changed the subject. It’s something I wouldn’t mind learning about. I’m totally open to learning about it to know more about other people. But, we don’t get together and say, ‘Let’s all talk about our cultures.’ ”
Reema Abusalah, 16, is a member of a Muslim all-girl sports program at the Islamic Center of Detroit. Abusalah’s faith plays a big role in her life, but she holds the belief that being Muslim doesn’t make her completely different from anyone else.
“I think I act like any other person,” she said. “Like you could put someone with a different religion or someone from a different origin, and we’d probably be alike as teens. You know, we all act alike.”
Despite the fact that Abusalah believes she isn’t that different from any other teen, she does have the problem of being stereotyped, not only because she’s Muslim but also because she wears the hijaab. The hijaab, or headscarf, is one of the most recognizable signs of Islam. Worn over a woman’s hair, it is meant to protect women and their beauty from the outside world. But many people take it as a sign that women are oppressed or uneducated.
“Not to be arrogant or conceited or anything, but my GPA is a 3.7 and I’m going to do pre-med,” Abusalah said. “So when people say that word, ‘uneducated,’ it’s like, ‘How could putting something on your head make you stupid?’ ”
Zeinab Sleiman, 18, is a member of the Dearborn Youth Advisory Council. She is Muslim, but does not wear the hijaab. She does not believe Islamic women are oppressed.
“I see people that when they see a woman with her husband and she is wearing the hijaab, that they feel she is inferior to him and that he’s the dominant one and she has to listen to whatever he says,” Sleiman said. “But if you were to really sit with these people and see the way they are, you wouldn’t find that. Our religion sets women and men equally.”
Another member of the all-girls sports program, Noor Salem, 14, wears the hijaab. She believes it protects her modesty and makes people see her as she really is.
“I told myself, you know, I want people to look at me not because of how I look, but because of who I am,” Salem said.
Living in Dearborn where seeing the hijaab is an every day experience, most people seem to understand why Salem and other Muslim women wear them. But when Salem travels, it can be very different.
“I’ve been down to North Carolina and Ohio, West Virginia and all that,” Salem said. “I feel a big difference in the way people look at me. People would actually come up to us and say why do you wear that and they start asking more about it.”
Abusalah also gets questions about the way she dresses, or why she wears the hijaab. She doesn’t resent being asked, but instead welcomes the questions and the chance to share her culture and religion with others.
“I love when people come and they ask me questions because those are the certain people that don’t hold stereotypes, that are actually trying to get to know us and our religion,” she said.
Diversity is something that is embraced by all the people interviewed, but at the end of the day, many of them agreed that we’re not that different. It was two Muslims, two Catholics and a Romanian Orthodox singing a song about cake. But that’s not how they see it. To them, they’re just five friends.
—8-18 Media

Editor’s note: This story was written by Claire Smith, eighteen, and Thorin Burkhard-Horn, eighteen, with contributions by Anna Irish-Burnett, seventeen and Ben Harris, twelve.

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