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Weybridge teen offers glimpse into Muslim community's concerns

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Posted on April 4, 2019 |
By John Flowers



Narges Anzali triptych.jpg
MIDDLEBURY UNION MIDDLE School eighth-grader Narges Anzali, talking with peers in Middlebury this week, is trying to break down barriers by talking openly about her Muslim faith and the reaction of others to it. Independent photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY — Narges Anzali speaks and writes so clearly, beautifully and effortlessly, you have to remind yourself she’s only 13.

But living in a world where one can face taunts, jeers or much worse for simply being Muslim, Anzali has had to grow up more quickly than other teens at Middlebury Union Middle School. She’s fluent in three languages and her voluminous English vocabulary includes words like “Islamophobia.”

It’s a word she wishes had never been coined, but she occasionally lives it, even within the gentle, progressive confines of Middlebury, Vermont. Narges has to a great degree kept her fears and concerns inside, but that all changed on March 15, when a shooter murdered a combined total of 50 worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

She recalled the news popping across her cell phone, and the shock that followed.

“To see (they were killed) just because they were Muslim, to see that sacred space desecrated,” Narges said, her voice tinged with emotion. “The thing what did it for me was the fact that when the shooter walked in, the first thing he heard was ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ — which means, ‘Peace be upon you, brother.’ And the next thing he did was shoot someone.

“Why do people have so much hate?”

She decided to make that the central question of a poem, titled “To all the people who hate Muslims.”

Like blood from an open wound, the words flowed from Narges’ heart, through her fingers and onto keyboard until she’d unburdened her soul.

Public reaction to her poem — in which she eloquently pleads with people to not hate folks they don’t even know — has been swift and overwhelming. Narges’ piece was first published on the Young Writers’ Project website two weeks ago, and then in the March 28 edition of the Addison Independent. It’s spurred thousands of “likes” and mostly positive comments on the Independent’s Facebook site. The Burlington Free Press excerpted portions of the poem for an article in its March 31 edition.

The Independent sat down with Narges on Monday to get her thoughts on the widespread reaction to her poem, her creative process, and her hopes for a world free of hate and discrimination.

Narges, her 10-year-old sister Esra and their parents hail from Iran. Her dad is Ata Anzali, an associate professor of religion at Middlebury College. Her mom is Fahimeh Bahrami, a recent PhD candidate at the University of Vermont’s College of Education and Social Services in the subject of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Last week she successfully defended her dissertation titled, “Identifying College Students’ Course-Taking Patterns in STEM Fields.”

The family has lived in the Middlebury areafor around seven years. Narges’ favorite pastimes include writing, running, reading and physics.

“I’ve always been writing, because I’ve always read a lot and wanted to create my own world,” she explained.

SHARING HER OPINIONS

She’s offered glimpses of that world through her occasional contributions to the Young Writers Project website, hoping other people her age will enjoy and relate to her thoughts and aspirations.

Being Muslim and from the Middle East, Narges is often asked to weigh in at school on headline-making events in that part of the world.

“It is a little bit awkward, because eyes tend to turn to you to wait for your opinion,” Narges smiled.

And she’s perfectly willing to offer her opinion on subjects ranging from literature to Islamophobia, hoping to break down barriers that can feed anger, unrest and acts of violence.

“When you know someone, it’s so hard to hate them,” she explained.

Middlebury’s welcoming nature is heartening to residents of its small international community, noted Narges.

“In reality, I think Middlebury is one of the best places to be when it comes to these things, because it’s such an open community,” Narges said. “What I want people to realize is, where you are definitely matters.”

But there’s no escaping the trepidation one can feel going about day-to-day activities knowing a small segment of the population doesn’t like you or trust you just because you’re different, Narges said.

The Addison Central School District board in 2017 formed a “Task Force on Racism, Bias and Discrimination” after receiving testimony from several local residents of color about both subtle and overt discrimination they and their children had experienced.

The Independent was informed of at least two cases during the past few years of people in vehicles yelling at local Muslims to “leave the country” as they drove by.

Such acts of intolerance are few in these parts, but keep Narges and fellow Muslims on their guard.

“It’s always going to follow you; that nagging thought in the back of your head, that ‘What if?’” she said. “In Middlebury, it’s just a ‘What if?’ It’s not a reality. But in so many places throughout the country, it’s a reality for people.”

Narges gets frustrated by debates playing out in the media these days on whether Islam is an ideology or a religion.

It’s a religion, Narges emphasized, but the false narrative of Islam being an “ideology” is fueling what she called “disturbing” calls for Muslim people to be shunned.

“You always wonder why these conversations are happening between people who aren’t Muslim,” she said. “You wonder, ‘What do people have against me?’”

In her poem, Narges works to dispel the misconception that Muslims are bent on perpetrating violence against non-believers. She notes the vast majority of Muslims are opposed to terrorism and violence and condemn such acts.

“You tell everyone that you’re scared, scared that your culture is going to be gone, scared we’ll bomb you, scared that we won’t assimilate. But you know what? I don’t think you’re really scared. I think you’re angry,” Narges writes in her poem.

That anger is misplaced, according to Narges, whose poem gives readers a glimpse of her very unthreatening family.

She describes herself as “Standing at about 5 foot 2 inches, with big, bushy, fuzzy hair,” and having a “penchant for zoning out and always having graphite-stained fingers.”

She notes her dad as an avid gardener “who makes us pancakes in the mornings,” and her mom as a dancing enthusiast who “drinks more tea than seems humanly possible.”

“Are you scared of us? Because that seems a little silly at this point, doesn’t it?” she writes.

It behooves all of us to get to know people as individuals rather than drawing conclusions in a vacuum based on unfair stereotypes, she urged.

“People need to wake up and see what they’re saying,” Narges said. “Sometimes, it’s frustrating.”

RESPONDING TO HATE

Her poem also speaks to the worry she feels when seeing someone approach wearing a red cap.

Does the cap bear President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan that some associate with intolerance, or is it merely a red cap?

There’s a lot of anti-Trump sentiment in the Northeast — and particularly in Vermont — but Narges refuses to condemn the president.

“We see a negative rhetoric toward people who support Trump,” Narges said. “I don’t think that’s going to solve things. I’m careful to never say ‘I hate Trump supporters’ or anything like that, because when people give you hate and you return that hate, you’re part of the problem.”

Some would argue Trump has given Narges ample reason to be resentful.

Iran was one of seven countries listed in Trump’s proposed 2018 travel ban. It placed restrictions on travelers from Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Venezuela.

Five of those seven countries have predominantly Muslim populations.

“To me, that wasn’t a ban against places that were dangerous,” Narges said. “It was more like, ‘Your faith is dangerous.”

Narges is concerned about those who equate Islam with ISIS, a terror group. She said the vast majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its tactics, and are offended the group commits acts of terror in the name of Islam.

“I stand against everything ISIS teaches,” she said, noting she herself would be targeted by the group for her decision not to wear a hijab, a head covering that is part of the Islamic dress code for women.

A student of history, Narges worries anti-Muslim rhetoric could lead to a return to the days of Nazi Germany when persecuted people — such as those of Jewish faith — were forced to carry special papers or wear an insignia on their clothing.

She dreads the notion of Muslims being forced to register with federal authorities and be monitored.

It’s a fear that might not be far-fetched, given recent political discourse.

For example, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called for police agencies to patrol Muslim neighborhoods in wake of terrorist attacks in Europe in 2016.

“When you hear things like that, it’s scary,” she said.

Narges believes education is the key to battling hate.

“Hate comes from ignorance,” she said. “If we give people that chance to be educated and if we sit down and talk, it will be better. A large part of why we see hate crimes increasing — especially against religious groups — is because we’ve lost that ability to sit down at the table and talk to people with different views. I think both (major political) parties have played a part in that.”

Middlebury Selectman Farhad Khan is a local businessman and former president of Islamic Society of Vermont. He was deeply touched by Narges’ poem.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Khan, who has two daughters around Narges’ age. “It pulls on the strings of your heart.”

Khan and his spouse discussed the poem and used it as a teaching moment with their daughters. He believes the lesson is transferrable to people of all religions: That people have a lot more in common than they might think.

“Muslims come in all shapes, sizes, colors and cultures,” he said. “Islam is not only about Muslims… it’s also about humanity. It teaches us how to treat another human being, rather than how to treat another Muslim.”

Narges’ father, Ata Anzali, said that his relationship to the Islamic faith is different that his daughter; he doesn’t practice the religion much and considers himself a “cultural Muslim.” Nevertheless, he knows that because he was born in the predominantly Muslim country of Iran people stereotype him.

“Once you look a certain way and were born in a certain place, people are going to treat you in certain way no matter what,” he said. “I guess what I am saying is that people who discriminate don’t ask you first whether you practice or not!”

Also, he thinks the fact that Narges is of a different generation also means she experiences cultural and religious bigotry differently than he does.

“Islamophobia, as serious of a problem as it is, does not affect me emotionally at the same level that it does her,” he said.

Living in Vermont definitely helps, though. “Fear is not a marker of our everyday lives but love,” Anzali said. “We feel we are embraced by this community and consider ourselves lucky to live in such a welcoming environment.”

Sadly, that is not the case everywhere.

The mass shooting in New Zealand struck Khan to the core, but he’s pleased to report he’s received dozens of supportive words from family, friends and acquaintances since the tragedy.

And a local child’s poem has provided a balm for healing.

“(Narges) is trying to tell people, ‘We’re humans, just like you.’”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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