My life frequently operates in bizarrely unpredictable ways. In 2014, Noor Tagouri was a rising star in the American journalism scene while I was a clueless 2L law student with a HuffPo piece, a Whitehouse.gov petition, and an invite for a radio interview to discuss the now-defunct (at least officially) NYPD surveillance program which broadly targeted Muslim American communities.
Two years later, Noor is once again providing an unique and outspoken voice for an embattled faith community, and I recently felt compelled to directly address some of her most spiteful detractors in order to force them to confront their knee-jerk perceptions and reactions. I felt it was the very least I could do as an aspiring activist to show my appreciation for a genuine role model and champion for our generation.
A few weeks ago, I actually met her. I did not think that paths could actually cross while her acclaim continues to skyrocket, much less imagine that we would meet for the first time not in the States but in the best city in the world.
Empowerful 2.0: Inspiring and Unleashing Youth Potential
It turned out that Noor was the keynote speaker at "Empowerful 2.0", the second edition of an unique, inspirational seminar-fundraiser organized at University College London by UCLU Friends of Palestine Society, Satifs, and Human Care Syria to raise funds for humanitarian aid operations in Syria. UCL instantly felt a strangely familiar place...
...and I soon learned why: Many of my all-time favorite films were filmed here!
After getting over my cinephilic sense of déjà vu, I settled in and watched as a large lecture room began filling up. A mass of attendees-overwhelmingly British Muslim students and youth began streaming in.
As usual, the sisters killed it with both attendance and enthusiasm...
As we waited for the first speaker, Empowerful organizer Yahya Abu Seido kicked off proceedings:
"I grew up reading about transformational figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Oprah. They had or have amazing talents, but they're no better than us. So why are we on the sidelines?"
Thus firmly establishing the theme of the entire event: All of our heroes overcame and achieved-so what's stopping us?
Leane Mohamad: Defying the Hate
"What if I told you that for some children around the world, hide-and-seek is a matter of life and death?"
So began Leane Mohamad's acclaimed "Birds, not Bombs" spoken word performance. At just 15 years old, she was a finalist of the prestigious Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge before she was expelled in highly controversial circumstances. Spoken words cannot do justice to her performance, the power of which can only be experienced by watching it in its entirety.
Yet one truth is self-evident: When stripping away all of the identify politics and geopolitical baggage we carry, there is objectively nothing that she said which is even remotely objectionable. If relating her personal experiences as a Palestinian, and sharing the collective experiences of a global 12.37 million strong community, suddenly becomes "hate speech", then what prospect is there for a honest discourse and complete dialogue in 21st century democratic societies? What hope is there of peace abroad if civil discourse of those very issues at home is stymied?
What was both disheartening and inspiring wasn't the expulsion, but Leanne's vivid descriptions of the vitriolic hatred she endured. The most noxious and blatantly false accusations imagined were hurtled at her and her loved ones.
Her experience directly shook me to my core, because it was just a few years ago when a certain ex-SNL comedian-turned-professional-fearmonger called me by name as a terrorist propagandist for a satircal article I wrote on the the nature and role of Muslim Students Organization . Granted this accusation came within weeks of the infamous hate crime-based murders of three young Muslim American students, so I was certainly on edge along with most of the Muslim American community. Yet a relatively minor league right-wing celebrity publicly insinuated that I was a terrorist propagandist, and I freaked out at the possible repercussions for me and my loved ones.
How 15 year old Leanne was able to endure every time of slander and overcome months of savage bullying by countless cowards and ignoramuses gave me a deeply personal and unique dose of inspiration. As young Leanne stood tall, dressed in her Palestinian garb, it was clear to me that the strength of her character was an immense asset to not just the Palestinian people, but every community struggling for dignity and basic human rights.
The Indomitable Spirit of Youth
The remaining speakers were no less inspirational. Malaka Mohammad, a Masters student at the University of Sheffield, described the incredible struggles she had to face in order to leave her native Gaza to study in the UK. She described the harrowing experience of waiting at the Rafah border crossing and pleading with the Egyptian border guards:
"We don't want our scholarships that we've fought for months or years to be lost."
The raw power of her struggles can only be fully experienced by listening to her in-person. Yet the passion of her plight can be felt in her interviews as her words cut across the screen and into your conscience. What young people are willing to endure for education and equality of opportunity is as inspirational as what certain powers are willing to do to crush those opportunities is disheartening and infuriating..
Spoken word artist Lamya Tawfik delivered two riveting performances which demonstrated the power of shaping narratives. The first was dedicated to the refugee experience, and demonstrably debunked so many of the misconceptions and stereotypes that are so commonly attached to refugees. Lamya's second piece addressed the issue of mental health, which is still a rather taboo subject for many communities. While words don't do either performance justice, the refrain of the second piece was a much-needed message for so many youth forced to cope with multiple issues and stressors at once:
"Don't give up, don't give in. There's always an answer for everything."
Satifs organizer Ismail Jeilani emphasized to the audience the importance of not just holding fast to their dreams, but daring to make them a reality:
"Ask yourself two questions: One: Who are you? And two: What do you love doing?"
From Soul-Searching Seriousness to Hilarity
After such relatively heavy topics, a marvelous lunch with cuisine across the Levant followed by a performance by acclaimed British-Nigerian comedian Nabil Abdul Rashid helped lightened the mood.
Nabil was intoxicatingly hilarious-again words don't do his performance justice. Uproarious laughter, uncomfortable "should I actually laugh at this?" laughter, and "yup, guilty as charged" laughter...the crowd experienced it all. He seamlessly transitioned across a range of topics from national and international politics to institutional racism and prejudice among various minority communities-all while delivering devastatingly funny zing after zing. Just a taste of the provocative "take no prisoners" hilarity:
"A loud minority of people dabble in religion for all the wrong reasons. Some try Islam because they're angry. Others go into Judaism for the bagels and discounted Palestinian land!"
It's little wonder why at the age of 22, he was the youngest black comedian to perform at the Hammersmith Apollo-though Nabil himself would probably say that was as much a sad reflection of the diminished opportunities for comedians of color as it was his incredible talent. Or "Hey I was good, but not "the only worthy young black comedian in the entire country" good!", as he would probably put it in his brand of unashamedly defian humor.
Not bad for a law student eh? You can bill me the royalties when you perform in the States brother.
Noor Tagouri: Badass Muslim-American and Relentless Journalist Extraordinaire
"When I was little, I asked the first person I met who also had dark hair if they were Muslim too."
So began the keynote speaker's address, as Noor Tagouri candidly shared her life story-the complete journey of both her personal life and her professional career. It was a soul-searching and emotional experience to hear someone bare their entire life in front of such a wide audience; I can only imagine what it must be like to be that courageously open with a room packed full of strangers.
As one of the most prominent Muslim journalists who also happens to wear the hijab, a lot of attention is thrust on that fact, which Noor addressed in a way that was very deeply esoteric yet real at the same time. For example, she pushed back against many of the stereotypes revolving around women who choose to wear the hijab:
"I personally believe the hijab is for the broken, for those looking to find themselves. That's why I put it on.".
Noor adamantly identified herself as a feminist, and passionately challenged the audience:
"If you hear 'feminist' and think you're not one, you don't know what that word means. If you're Muslim, you should be a feminist too."
In addition to her life story and personal perspectives, Noor painted a remarkably complete picture of her professional development from a high schooler working on the school newspaper to one of the increasingly growing yet still relatively few Muslim female journalists in the country.
One of my favorite parts was when Noor made an eye-opening revelation about her career at Newsy, and followed it up with an inspiring declaration:
"Not only am I the only Muslim [at Newsy] , but I'm even the only dark haired person!
While that might seem overwhelming, it's also a great asset as a journalist. Because I
can go to the different minority communities whose stories I'm sharing and say: I know what it's like for someone to misrepresent your story."
An overriding theme was how Noor viewed good journalism as good storytelling, and the importance of faithfully repaying the trust of those individuals and communities who confided in you their stories The seriousness with which she takes her responsibilities as a journalist is as admirable as the raw grit of her perseverance and work ethic is as inspirational.
Raising 232,000 Pounds for Syria in Minutes
And then came the other main reason we were all here: A shared desire to make a tangible difference for our Syrian sisters and brothers in humanity. Sara Ibrahim of Human Care Syria began by relating her own personal story on why she has dedicated herself to humanitarian public service:
When everyone goes home, there are family members who are well off, and family members who are not well off...when I visited my relatives in rural Egypt, they overwhelmed me with their hospitality. They didn't have much, but they gave me whatever they had.
Sara then highlighted the range of grassroots, on-the-ground work that HCS has been doing in Syria. They operate a large refugee camp in Azaz where they provide everything from food provisions to medical care and education:
"We try to provide as normal of a life as possible to the people who are suffering from unimaginable hardships."
They also recently launched an orphan sponsorship program, which are desperately needed as the war continues to kill off large numbers of parents and adult guardians. Sara highlighted how remarkable it was to operate these programs, given how charities operating in Syria are "systematically getting shut down."
As a Muslim American growing up in a post 9-11 world, that statement set off some bells.
Plus like any decent amateur journalist-wannabe, I did a little digging on HCS and could only find an old Telegraph article in which the single allegation involving the HCS (a FBI statement) was questionable and inconclusive at best. When I asked the US Embassy for any update or clarification, the US Embassy informed me that they had no profile on HCS. My inquiries to the US Department of Justice and the British Ministry of Justice went unanswered. It seems apparent that HCS's only crimes are being a relatively small charity rather than its more massive NGO counterparts which operate with differing levels of competence and effectivenesss, and for daring to operate in Syria. When even large NGOs with sterling reputations and visibility are increasingly enduring hurdles on rationales bordering on paranoia, HCS's immense struggles can be viewed in a proper context.
Moved by HCS's Herculean humanitarian efforts to alleviate such massive suffering, this audience-dominated by university and "college" (high school) students-leaped at the chance to make a difference. Many signed up to volunteer their time and skills to assist HCS. Although most were broke if not outright in debt, participants also pledged to help raise the funds while both Satifs and HCS vowed to assist them in planning and executing fundraising events. Dozens pledged to raise sums of 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, and even 20,000 pounds. Others pledged amounts of 100 pounds in installments or smaller amounts immediately.
After a frenetic period of sorting the sea of raised hands and tallying all of the pledges, there was a grand total of over 232,000 pounds. If even half of those pledges actually materialize, this room full of youthful idealists united from disparate walks of life will make a huge difference.
What factors of the day's events compelled such an overwhelming response? Three attendees offered three unique perspectives:
Noura Alissa, 19, University College London:
"When Ismail Jeilani, founder of Satifs, spoke he asked two very important questions; who are you and what do you love. I really took a minute to think about that. What was particularly striking for me about Empowerful was its ability to make me truly question my goals and aspirations and the kind of person I am and want to be. What all the talks had in common was a sense of vision, ambition and real heart. I am very glad I attended because it was a very reflective experience that reorientated me towards thinking about the objectives I want to achieve as a determined student and the ways through which I can achieve them."
Ayo Olatunji, 20, University College London medical student:
"Looking around the event I was surprised to find I was one of two black African males present at the talk with only a few white European/British people there. This baffled me as a lot of the problems caused that we had been discussing had been due to the actions of the west and the attitudes of white Europeans. This included Islamophobic views and behaviour, conflicts in the middle-east and the situation of refugees around the world namely Syria. I thought to myself surely white Europeans should be making up a lot more the audience here as they need educating the most about all of this since it applies to them.
The Empowerful event really touched my heart as I heard the struggles that people have gone through in their countries raided by conflict and the hostility they have dealt with in the west, so much so that I pledged to raise £1000 for Syrian refugees this year."
Ghadeer Mansour, London School of Economics:
"As an Egyptian-American here in the UK, this event was a breath of fresh air. It amplified the energy of our generation, inspiring us to embody all that we envision in spite of the obstacles we're bound to face. After meeting beautifully humble people wearing their passions, I left with reignited motivation and gratitude for my journey as I aspire to rebuild war-torn cities fter finishing my postgrad studies in City Design and Development."
If Empowerful's goal was to raise staggering sums of funds for local resource-strapped charities operating in Syria while inspiring an entire generation of aspiring activists, advocates, professionals, and community leaders-I think it's safe to say mission accomplished.
A Look at the Man Behind the Magic
Those three attendees weren't the only ones to have such inspiration and awe-soaked reactions. At this point, I can't deny that I felt what they did as well. While there are a range of amazing events organized by different sectors of the American Muslim community, I had never experienced an event quite like Empowerful; nor a youth group like Setif.
To know how such an event-an impressive success by all objective measures-was conceived of, I knew I had to sit down with the man who was the main organizer for the day's proceedings: Yahya Abu Seido
Noor Tagouri actually did a great on-stage interview with Yahya, in which we got to learn more about the man who led an incredible team which made all of this possible. Yet I had a few questions I was dying to ask-and which Yahya was gracious to answer.
Q: Did your experience as a med school student inspire you to launch Empowerful?
"I don't think it would be fair for me to say that it was my experience as a medical school student that inspired me to launch Empowerful. It most definitely did contribute, but was not the sole source of inspiration. My background, the people I was surrounded with, and my despair at the current situation this world is in, along with my passion for medicine, all played their part in inspiring the creation of Empowerful."
Q: As students, how did you and your team find the time and energy to organise such a large and successful event like Empowerful?
"There's many answers to that, but I think the first one to mention would be that most of the planning and organising occurred during the summer vacation, so it didn't conflict much with our studies. However, throughout the year this very same team organises a plethora of events, and the answer to how that's possible is found in their enthusiasm and passion. When you have a real thirst to make a difference, you'll find a way to balance your studies."
Q: Do you have a message for other Muslim student societies/organisations in Europe, Australia, and North America (esp. in the US)?
"They do amazing things, and I believe that the more we continue to inspire one another the more we will achieve as an Ummah. I'd also love to organise an international Muslim student led event one day, the things we could achieve together if we united on one specific objective would be astounding."
Q: Do you have a message for the Syrian people who Human Care Syria are assisting?
"Sorry. We've let you down. Our governments have let you down. It's embarrassing that humanity has come to this, and I pray that the bloodshed is put to a halt. Just remember that with every hardship comes ease, and this hardship is extremely painful to witness, but I hope when the ease comes it will be one we'll all be in awe of. We, the sane humans of this Earth, will do our best to play our parts in healing the wounds that have been inflicted upon Syria and its people."
Yahya's last answer was a sobering reminder that what we accomplished was remarkable-indeed I had never quite witnessed something like that in my life. Yet it was a drop in the bucket to what is ever-desperately needed-and what people suffering in Syria and around the world deserve. Empowerful inspired me to continue my work with The Salaam Games so that it can become a reality one day and drive a nail in the coffin of sectarianism, ethnic strife, and violent nationalism, insha'Allah.
Aspire to inspire and perspire to create the world we deserve. Empowerful 2.0
Huge thanks to UCLU Friends of Palestine Society for the photos! And yes, I was a bit of a shameless fanboy as well.