Today, President Obama made his first visit to a mosque in America. Speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he said:
“At a time when others are trying to divide us along lines of religion or sect, we have to reaffirm that most fundamental of truths—we are all God’s children, all born equal with inherent dignity. So often we focus on outward differences, we forget how much we share.”
The Muslim community is a relatively small one in America. For many people, the only ways they hear about Muslims and the Islamic faith is from the news, often after a terrorist attack, or from derogatory political rhetoric that blames the entire Muslim-American community for the violent acts of a few.
But that is not who Muslim Americans are. They helped build our nation. They teach our children, they take care of us as patients, they keep our homeland safe. They are laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery after they've given their very last to defend the country they loved.
Today, they work for President Obama in the White House. These are the stories of dedicated public servants who have faced discrimination and found hope in the people they work alongside and the work they do every day on behalf of the American people.
I was born and raised in Maryland, not too far from D.C. Growing up, I played basketball, loved traveling and hanging with my family and friends, just like any other kid. But after the heinous attacks on 9/11, being a head-covering 8th grader would no longer be the same. There were days when my identity as a Muslim American became a struggle – I was glared at, cursed and spit at in public and in school. It was the tenets of my faith, the ideals of this country, the encouragement of those around me, and the determination to have my voice heard that carried me through and gave me the courage to pursue public service. I learned through hardship, that every challenge is in fact an opportunity to become stronger. Never would I have imagined as a young girl who was once mocked and called names that I’d end up working at the White House wearing a hijab in the West Wing.
Hearing the political discourse and hateful language certainly has negative consequences, but it is also the spark that has empowered me and others like me to speak up and work together in ways we may not have before.
That kind of ability to overcome any challenge is the attitude I take toward the level of anti-Muslim rhetoric we’re seeing today. This country has overcome and continues to strive to overcome every challenge, no matter how long it takes. The Civil Rights movement proves that. People had to struggle and suffer to work together and raise their voices to bring about change. Hearing the political discourse and hateful language certainly has negative consequences, but it is also the spark that has empowered me and others like me to speak up and work together in ways we may not have before. My passion has always been in global social entrepreneurship and empowerment of women and their voices and I am proud to have been able to work on these issues here at the White House. It was the President's message of hope and change that inspired me to pursue an internship at the White House, and it was interning in Correspondence and reading letters that made me realize how important every voice was, including those of Muslim Americans.
I believe if you work hard and if you play by the rules, you can make it if you try in America -- no matter who you are or how you pray. It's how a young girl -- once mocked and called names -- can pursue her dream and proudly serve her country as a head-covering Bengali Muslim American woman in the White House.
I feel honored and deeply privileged to get to serve in the White House, for this country I love so much. But I feel especially privileged to work for President Obama, whom I have felt, since his speech in the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, has this uncanny way of saying exactly what I feel and believe, only better than I could have said it myself. And I love that there is a generation of children, many of whom are now 10 and 11 years old, for whom a black President named Barack Hussein Obama is in no way strange or a stretch of the imagination.
But even with the progress we’ve made, the truth is that, as wonderful as America is, anyone who is "different" in some way has likely experienced discrimination at some point or another. For me personally, as a young man before 9/11 the most common thing I would experience is that, somehow, I almost always got "randomly" selected for the extra bag check and security check at the airport every time I flew. This even happened (on October 11, 2001) when I was at JFK airport right after 9/11 preparing to leave for West Africa to serve in the Peace Corps. Thirty-five of us volunteers were all checking in together with all of our gear -- but I was the one that got asked to step aside while a military member searched my bags. Ironically, I feel a lot better at airports today because the security screening that most of us find annoying is at least applied even-handedly and based on rules and evidence-based indicators. At least these days if I get extra scrutiny, it does not feel like it is because I am being profiled.
I have a three-year old boy and I had hoped, when I was growing up, that by the time he went through school, being Muslim would not feel so "weird" and "different" for him as it did for me -- that he would not have as much explaining to do.
For my family, the scariest thing was in 2008 when the FBI showed up to my parent's home unannounced and asked to come in to ask some questions. They asked about my parents' travel to Mumbai, India (where we are from) and then they asked about my parents' religious community, mosque, and friends. It really shook my family to be questioned in that way -- they were afraid, and embarrassed, and felt really unsafe. This has happened to a lot of Muslim Americans, but when it happened to us, we felt very alone and my family lost a lot of sleep over it.
That’s why the vitriolic language in today’s political discourse makes me shake my head. I feel like people are being manipulated, that opportunists are taking advantage of the fact that in a time with so much uncertainty for so many Americans it is easy to grab at visceral fears and say "those other people are the problem -- hate and fear them." I am not so worried about myself, but I worry and fear a great deal for the Muslim American kids in elementary, middle, and high school who are already struggling (as all kids do) to define their multiple identities and who cannot help but feel that there are those in America who might hate them for who they are. I have a three-year old boy and I had hoped, when I was growing up, that by the time he went through school, being Muslim would not feel so "weird" and "different" for him as it did for me -- that he would not have as much explaining to do. Now I have to add the hope that he will not feel hated. That is the heart-breaking thing as a parent.
As a doctor in public service, I have had the privilege of taking care of people from all walks of life -- and I have appreciated that regardless of background, socioeconomic status, religion, etc., we all are connected by our fundamental desire to be human, to be happy and healthy, and to have a fulfilling and productive life. I take great pride in this work.
I also take great pride in the fact that I am a Muslim American. But as Muslim American, I have experienced discrimination both in obvious and subtle ways. I have had the experience of getting threatening hate calls and individuals saying offensive things in response to my religious affiliation. And while these incidents have been emotionally upsetting, I have been able to rationalize those incidents as a reaction by those on the fringes who are being manipulated by what they see and hear on television. What I find most difficult is the subtle discrimination I face as a Muslim American, as a women, and as a person-of-color every day. I have to work extra hard to make sure others around me recognize me first and foremost as a proud American serving her country along with other facets of myself.
America gave my parents opportunity to give my siblings and me a better life. I was taught to value its freedoms and pay-it-forward.
That’s why the current rhetoric against Muslim Americans makes me so mad, especially the discourse that somehow claims that we are "un-American" in our values. As immigrants, my parents made much effort to make sure that we had an appreciation of our past heritage and an understanding of our faith; however, they instilled in my siblings and me a great sense of pride and gratitude in being American. America gave my parents opportunity to give my siblings and I a better life. I was taught to value its freedoms and pay-it-forward. To have my patriotism and my dedication to this country questioned because of my faith disrupts my sense of belonging.
However, during my last few years working in government and at the White House, I have seen the power the President’s leadership has in bringing people from all different disciplines together to work in government and solve challenging problems. It has been such a satisfying experience to work with a diverse group of smart, dedicated colleagues who everyday are trying to make this country and the world a better place.
Unfortunately, my family and I have experienced discrimination and xenophobia most of our lives. I was born in Texas and spent most of my childhood in a small city, where we had to travel three hours just to get a major city with a Muslim population. A lot of the discrimination I faced growing up was not ill-intentioned or deliberate; it was a lack of exposure or understanding. As I moved into my adult life, I think I became more aware of it and it also became more prevalent and frankly, more ill-intentioned. I’ve been told to go back to my country or called a terrorist more times than I can even count. I’ve faced bigotry, stereotypes, and mistreatment in positions of employment, where I’m treated differently, mischaracterized, or my ability is questioned because of my faith or because of what I look like.
I’ve faced bigotry, stereotypes, and mistreatment in positions of employment, where I’m treated differently, mischaracterized, or my ability is questioned because of my faith or because of what I look like.
The painful language we hear today from too many political leaders is not new to me. But what is new to me is the level of acceptability and the support for these statements. We have reached a new low when people publicly support these statements and see no wrong in them. It’s true, we used to live in a time of political correctness when people knew what not to say. But, at least they knew those statements were wrong. It’s heartbreaking to see people stand by while others try to take us backwards from the progress we’ve made. It violates everything that I know America to be, everything we have been historically, and everything we can be.
This is why I have worked on social justice issues most of my career and went to law school with that intention. I spent many years assisting women survivors of abuse. Given my background and the fact that I speak Spanish, the majority of my clients were immigrants and several of them were Muslim. Witnessing the injustice that my clients faced on a daily basis and the ways in which some of our systems required change to really benefit the people who needed them most, I decided to move to DC and shift over to policy advocacy. Advocacy happens in so many forms, from the inside out and from the top to the bottom. There is great value in all avenues for change and I truly believe that we must pursue change at every angle in order to achieve it. If ever there was a time that I wanted to pursue change from the inside -- when I believed that change was really possible -- it is under this President.
I was born in Somalia, but mostly what I remember are flashes of a carefree child, happily unaware of the world beyond the Utanga Refugee Camp in Kenya. About half a mile from our UNHCR-issued blue tent was the fence that surrounded the camp. Beyond the fence was an endless blue horizon of ocean. If you stood close enough, on the slight precipice before the fence, you could see where the beach welcomed the waves. I never saw any people down there, but sometimes I would catch the sight of boats with colorful sails drifting out to sea.
Soon, due to a combination of wildfires and overpopulation, our camp was ordered to shut down. My family, like many others, faced tough decisions. One was whether to return to Somalia in the height of civil war. Another was whether to send their small child -- me -- to live with a relative in a far-off land in hopes of better opportunities.
On our last day at the camp, I watched my parents and brother sail off in one of the colorful boats shuttling the many faces -- men, women, and children -- who once inhabited this camp, back to Somalia. I was sent to live in Denmark. In the early 2000s, my father made his way out of Somalia, alone. He came to the United States as a refugee. He lived in Texas, but driving trucks gave him the opportunity to explore America’s frontiers: from the snowy Northwest to the humid Southeast. He decided to settle in the latter, and started the paperwork to bring my mother and brothers from Somalia and me from Denmark.
We all stood, raised our right hands and recited the Oath of Allegiance: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”
In 2005, my whole family reunited in our new home: Memphis, Tennessee. We soon adapted to Southern living (and yummy Memphis barbecue). We bought a house down by the Mississippi River. My brother even attended the same middle school as Elvis Presley. I graduated from the University of Memphis.
On the morning of April 29, 2013, we returned to the same auditorium where I had received my high school diploma a few years earlier. We all stood, raised our right hands and recited the Oath of Allegiance: "I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same..."
That's why it has been so disheartening to have my intentions and allegiance questioned when I have twice taken an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” -- first as new U.S. citizen, then as a public servant. I have been experiencing hateful attacks on social media not only directed at my Muslim heritage and refugee background but also aimed to undermine my service to this country. These attacks have, at times, made me reflect more deeply on who I am as an American but have also made me appreciate that in spite of the existence of this hateful rhetoric, I can proudly serve at the highest level of our government.
In my current role I am deeply involved in our Administration's efforts to welcome and integrate refugees and immigrants from around the world. A few years ago, the President said this at the naturalization ceremony: “The basic idea of welcoming immigrants to our shores is central to our way of life -- it is in our DNA. We believe our diversity, our differences, when joined together by a common set of ideals, makes us stronger, makes us more creative, makes us different. From all these different strands, we make something new here in America.”
This is why, every day, I am humbled to serve in an Administration that honors our American values of respecting different faiths and backgrounds, in an Administration that strives to be as diverse as the country it serves.
I was raised in Philadelphia, PA and attended public school there. My parents were both educators with the Philadelphia public schools and instilled in me and my siblings a thirst for knowledge and respect for others. These character traits opened doors for me to attend Ivy league universities for college and law school, travel abroad, and pursue a career as an attorney. Yet, as a Muslim woman who is also African American, I have been reminded throughout my life that I may face challenges and hostility because of my race, faith, and gender.
I became a public servant in 2009 when I joined the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division as a Senior Trial Attorney. When I first joined the Civil Rights Division under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, we embarked on a comprehensive mission to let Americans know that the Civil Rights Division was "open for business" and we were prepared to bring cases to protect the civil rights of all. Sadly, my work also allowed me to see first-hand the result of hateful rhetoric similar to what we are witnessing today in the form of hate crime prosecutions, housing discrimination cases and employment discrimination cases brought by Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and others.
The heckler had no way of knowing that I was born and raised in Philadelphia to a family whose history in this country is as old as the nation itself.
One experience that sticks out in my own life took place when I moved here to Washington after the President’s election. While walking not far from my office in downtown DC, a man yelled at me from his car "go back to your country." He apparently supposed that I was not American because I wore a hijab (a traditional headscarf worn by some Muslim women). The heckler had no way of knowing that I was born and raised in Philadelphia to a family whose history in this country is as old as the nation itself. He was unaware of my family’s contributions to both building and defending our great country. Little did he know that my family, perhaps like his, includes teachers, school administrators, lawyers, nurses, writers, transportation workers, and several members of the Armed Services (one of whom was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for his service during World War II).
I would have enjoyed the opportunity to engage the heckler and share with him my experiences as a Senior Trial Attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, prior to arriving at the Executive Office of the President. Perhaps he may have been interested in a case I brought on behalf of a prison guard who was sexually harassed by his female supervisor. Or, a Muslim woman who was denied a religious accommodation to go on Hajj. I could have also related my work in advocating for the rights of school police officers who wished to observe their religion while at work by wearing beards. Or, he may have found comfort in knowing about my work on a disparate impact case that helped improve the Fire Department of New York by ending decades of employment based discriminatory practices against Latinos and African Americans. Muslim Americans have and continue to provide support to this nation in so many arenas.
Kelly Jo is Special Assistant to the White House Chief Digital Officer.