May 24, 2017

Quaker-Muslim Schools’ Relationship Strengthens in Troubled National Climate

QUAKER-MUSLIM BOND: Eighth-graders from Princeton Friends and Noor-Ul-Iman Schools visited the United Nations in New York together last week, continuing a long-term relationship between the two schools. (Photo by Jane Fremon)

The teachers were having difficulty getting their eighth-graders to quiet down and listen to instructions as they worked on an art project. The conversations were animated among the approximately 50 excited children sitting together at round tables.

It could have been a scene in almost any school, except for a couple of significant factors.

The session took place last week at the Noor-Ul-Iman School (NUI) located on the grounds of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey on Route One north of Princeton, following a field trip to the United Nations in New York City. The NUI eighth-graders were hosting their counterparts from the Princeton Friends School (PFS) in an ongoing relationship between the two schools that dates back to the aftermath of 9/11.

Most of students working together, with the Muslim NUI students — all the girls in head scarves (the hijab) — teaching the PFS students the art of Arabic calligraphy, have been part of annual visits from one school to the other since they were first-graders. Each student has a partner from the other school.

In the current context of Muslim bans, immigration orders from the White House, and widespread reports of Islamophobia, the PFS-NUI alliance is a remarkable demonstration of friendship and cross-cultural rapport and understanding.

“This is a relationship that we cherish,” said Eman Arafa, NUI head of school. “The children have been together for so long and look forward to these events. For them to share this experience is huge. Look at the faces. They’re happy. I sometimes see children who have left PFS but come up to me asking about their pen pals or their partners, the children they were meeting up with every year at Noor-Ul-Iman, so it stays with them.”

Later in the week, 29 NUI 12th-graders and their teachers traveled to PFS to meet with about 50 Friends’ sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders. NUI enrolls more than 500 students from pre-K to 12th grade, PFS just 125 from Pre-K to eighth grade.

“I want to help clear up misconceptions about Islam,” said Harith Siddiqui, NUI senior on his fourth visit to PFS since he was in third grade. “It’s a good thing to have a relationship between a Muslim and a non-Muslim school. They get to know real Muslims. Their only perception of Muslims might have been through stereotypes and the media. If they hear Muslim now they won’t think just about guns and turbans. They see normal kids like us.”

Bilal Syed, also a senior at NUI, added, “In coming here and people meeting us and seeing who we are and what we believe in, we can help them get a better understanding of what our religion means. It’s sad, but a high percentage of Americans have never had one-to-one interaction with a Muslim. So when they meet with us they get a better understanding. This is important.”

Hasan Amer, who looks forward to studying and playing soccer at the American University in Marbella, Spain next fall after his graduation from NUI, shared happy memories of his visits to PFS. “I remember fun soccer games and the cider and doughnuts. I remember sitting on the floor in the music room and playing songs and singing and hanging out with other kids.”

He continued, “This is very important. Our school is isolating. We pray at noon and we do our thing, but then we come here and we see other people. We play. We socialize. We have fun. We don’t see any differences between us.”

As the students gathered in the Quaker Meeting House, the theme was “Truth Over Fear: Countering Islamophobia,” and the NUI seniors were prepared and articulate in delivering a short presentation followed by a lively question-and-answer session. Their observations included: “In fact, most Muslims are ordinary people just like you.” “In fact, most Muslims like pizza.” “And most of them like sports — some of my favorites are basketball, football, soccer, and hockey.” “Some Muslims like “Star Wars.” “Help us eradicate Islamophobia.”

The questions from the PFS group ranged widely, starting with “How do you feel about Trump’s campaign promise to remove Islam from America?”

Senior Meryem Turan responded, “It was hurtful, but at the same time it was a learning experience for a lot of us. We faced a lot of questions. ‘Are you Muslim? What is a Muslim?’

A lot of good came out of that chaos.”

Ms. Turan went on to describe the value and importance of the PFS-NUI relationship, which she has enjoyed since first grade. “It was awesome to have pen pals. All of us have really great memories here, and it’s cool that even though most kids here aren’t Quakers, they all have a kind of belief system too, though it’s not exactly the same as ours.”

The NUI students answered questions and told stories about Ramadan; about the hijab, reactions to it, and why the women wear it; about being both American and Muslim and people’s reactions to them as Muslims.

“It’s important for kids to make alliances with people who are trying to do good in this world, to promote peace, justice, and good values,“ summed up NUI teacher and Religious Studies Director Abir Catovic. “It shows students that you can cross into other groups that you’re not familiar with and you’ll find the same values, and we can work cooperatively. That’s the biggest thing that we try to tell them. Don’t be exclusive and leave people out. If you work together and don’t focus on the differences, you can do awesome things. We can build bridges and do good things.”

As PFS Head of School Jane Fremon reminded the students and teachers from the two schools, “It means so much that we have all given time to this relationship that is so important. I hope you will all understand the world better and look back to this as a time when we all learned.”