On Sunday as my family and I entered Battery Park, I was overcome by my emotions. I felt like we were walking down the red carpet and everyone was cheering our names. This was the first time that I personally experienced a largely non-Muslim crowd speaking out for the rights of my community. I was touched and taken aback by the realization that the America I grew up in was indeed a different America than the next generation of Muslims will grow up in.
I was in elementary school when the U.S. launched its first war with Iraq. Classmates called me Sadam instead of Sadaf... why not since it was just the change of one letter? They asked if Sadam was my uncle. If we were related. Then in middle school our teacher turned on the news so we could follow live what was happening with the Oklahoma City bombings. Classmates turned around and called me a terrorist. When asked where I was from, I always said Pakistan, never America (even though I was born in Florida!), because I didn’t feel like I belonged. (Of course back then no one knew where Pakistan was ― India’s neighbor I would say and then get an “Ohhh ok” response with a still puzzled look). Whenever I went to school with henna on my hands classmates stayed away from me thinking I had a disease.
What I saw on Sunday was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. A majority non-Muslim crowd speaking out for our rights.
Still, I never backed down. When asked to do an assignment around Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, I wrote about Americans seeing Muslims as their equals, as Americans. I always took the opportunity to engage. In high school I wrote an original oratory piece titled “Muslims in America” to try to dispel any misperceptions ― keep in mind this was still pre-9/11.
Even then I faced hurdles. I would get to the semi-final or even final rounds when one or more judges would comment that my speech was based on inaccurate facts, that Muslims were terrorists. In fact, one judge gave me zeros in every category at a particular competition. I surely didn’t win any trophies with my speech, but that was not the point.
Fifteen months after my high school graduation, in the aftermath of 9/11, when so many of my former high school classmates reached out to me to lend their support and ask if I was OK, that’s when I knew I won those debating championships.
Sunday that feeling returned.
When I came down that walkway and joined the thousands of New Yorkers gathered at Battery Park and the thousands of Americans gathered across the country, I finally felt at home, that I belonged. Because this is what democracy looks like ― that we come together and speak out when our fellow citizen is being oppressed. We come together and fight for what’s morally right.
It’s been an emotionally rough few months... fearing the worst and then seeing it become reality.
Yet despite what’s happening, I still have hope, that “We the People” will still form a more perfect union and establish justice. Because what I saw on Sunday was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. A majority non-Muslim crowd speaking out for our rights. What was more powerful, however, was the presence of kids – so many kids! – and babies! These non-Muslim parents, no, these fellow Americans were being role models, setting an example for their children, our children.
This is what brings me hope. That a young Muslim girl in school today will feel that she belongs, that she too is an American. That if my niece or my daughter is called a terrorist’s daughter, her classmates will stand up for her because her parents taught her that all humans are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Thank you my fellow Americans for making your voices heard. Thank you for fighting for our rights. My dream of America being a more accepting nation for my family’s next generation is indeed coming true. There’s still a lot of work to be done for sure. But look at how far we’ve come already!
Sadaf Sajwani works at an education non-profit in New York.