Muslim students share stories of hope amid discouragement
Rahiwa Mussa never used to tell people she was a Muslim.
Even after attending an international school in her native Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the senior wasn’t comfortable sharing her religious identity with fellow Augustana students until halfway through her sophomore year.
“I don’t like being put into categories,” Mussa said. “I felt like introducing myself as a Muslim woman stunted those relationships that I was trying to grow because of the preconceptions about Muslims today.”
It was only when those fellow students began asking questions about Mussa’s faith, instead of simply meeting her with their own opinions about who she is or should be, that Mussa opened up about her Muslim identity.
“Now when anyone asks to talk with me I’m more than willing to answer their questions and give them my opinion,” she said.
As the Trump administration heads into its first 100 days, more questions are being asked of Muslims around the world as the president fights to maintain his executive order suspending immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. But questions are being asked around the Augustana campus, too, questions that President Rob Oliver and the International Programs Office, among others, are trying to answer.
Though none of Augustana’s nearly 150 international students are from one of the seven countries listed in President Trump’s executive order, there are many Muslim students on campus who have felt the order’s effects personally.
One of which is Mussa.
“It’s incredibly disheartening,” she said. “As a Muslim, I know my religion teaches peace and love, and to have my religion branded as solely violent and prone to terrorism … that’s not what I was taught throughout my life. It goes against everything I know.”
More than numbers
Ekram Wehabrebi wakes up to pray at 6 a.m. every morning.
Though also originally from Ethiopia, the junior’s story of growing up Muslim looks much different than Mussa’s.
After her first semester at Augustana, Wehabrebi said she considered not coming back to continue her education.
As one of the first Muslim students to wear a hijab, a traditional head covering, on campus, Wehabrebi said she fielded many questions that first semester, about both her attire and the lifestyle of modesty and restraint that accompanies it. At one point the inquisition threatened to overwhelm her.
“I kept getting asked why I wasn’t acting my age, why I chose not to party,” Wehabrebi said. “People thought I wasn’t supposed to have fun. It was overwhelming.”
After spending interim in Ethiopia that year, Wehabrebi returned to school refreshed and ready to share her story while staying true to her beliefs. After connecting with friends off campus, she realized she wasn’t alone in these choices.
“It made me realize that I’m not the only one,” she said. “Now we go to the mosque together, we do our prayers together. When I feel down they know. We started teaching each other better and eventually I started to become more open and outgoing.”
That willingness to answer questions has allowed Wehabrebi, like Mussa, to explain her perspective on topics like her hijab to those who ask. But when people don’t ask and instead choose to see her as just another number, her faith becomes a barrier.
“I know that everyone does what they do for a reason,” she said, “and Trump may believe that by doing this he’s keeping the country safe, but it’s not just numbers; it’s people.”
Arguing for understanding
Manaal Ali loved debate in high school.
The freshman’s first-generation Muslim-Indian parents didn’t always believe she should talk about dramatic subjects publicly, but Ali brought her passion for politics and argument to college at Augustana.
She argues now not to win a high school debate championship, but to gain understanding.
“Dr. Richard Swanson told me that arguing is the best pastime,” she said. “I’ve found that politics affects you know matter what, so I wanted to understand how the world works, and I’ve come to love that aspect of it.”
As an American citizen, Trump’s executive order hasn’t affected Ali personally, she has witnessed the fear of others in the Muslim community.
“I’ve seen people absolutely fearful,” she said. “They make jokes all the time, but their humor is driven by fear.”
Ali’s love of politics hasn’t been shaken by recent events, though. Instead, she still has faith in the governmental system.
“I think we should focus on what people are already doing—sending letters, writing emails, the lawyers in the airports—focus on that and not focus on fear,” she said. “That’s a big part of politics too, doing these things for each other, but that gets lost in the media cycle. The only thing we can be is positive.”
As leaders in the Muslim Student Association (MSA), African Student Union and the Peace Club, Mussa, Wehabrebi and Ali have each worked to spread understanding and education about Muslim identity in their own ways. And though their stories are differ, each said she maintains hope that understanding can grow in the current political climate.
“Education is key,” Ali said. “Hate rises from not understanding and creates a barrier to transcend. I hope people become educated and not ignorant, realizing that there’s humanity behind their actions.”
The first step toward understanding may be simple: ask a question.
“Be a human first,” Wehabrebi said. “That’s where we need to start. If you don’t know someone, it’s so easy to hate. When you get to know them, you realize they’re your neighbors. Being human, that’s what makes us care.”
That sense of shared humanity gives Mussa hope and challenges her to take responsibility.
“It’s in our human nature to want to help,” she said. “How can we turn a blind eye to these people? Branding people as terrorists, the terms we use are dehumanizing, making it easier for people to hate. The words we use have power. In the end it comes down to human decency.”