Terrorists in America
It was the shattering of the windows that woke me. I wasn’t sure if I dreamt it or if it was real.
And then I heard it again.
I instinctively grabbed my younger sister’s arm and tried pulling her off the bed. My small hands didn’t have the strength they needed. Her heavy, limp body wouldn’t budge. It was the middle of the night and she was deep in sleep. I ran around to the other side and rolled her gently off. Using all of my strength, I pushed her under the bed and crawled in after her. Her little body whimpered next to mine. I gently patted her head. “Shhh, I’m here” I assured her. I could hear faint shattering downstairs as well, but my mind was sleepy and my eyes were heavy.
Scared, disoriented, and sweating; I wanted my mom and abba (dad). And in that moment, I heard my abba’s hurried feet shuffling up the stairs. “Beta! Where are you? Saadia? Sufia?” The shattering continued downstairs. “We’re under the bed.” I whispered shakily. “You are safe, no need to worry. Just stay under the bed and close your eyes. I will be back.” I didn’t want him to leave. I couldn’t make sense of what was going on. I heard my mom’s panicky voice- her Indian accent thicker than normal- on the phone with the police.
The blue and red police lights danced off my bedroom walls which were covered in rainbow wallpaper. I slowly crawled out from under the bed. I could hear my parents’ voices, along with the officers and our neighbors. All of our windows had been shot at and broken. The front of our house was covered with eggs, and white paint was thrown all over our only car. Our neighbor had her arms around my mother who was sobbing. My elderly grandparents were sitting on the stairs in confusion, clutching their chests. In black spray paint, someone had written, “Go home F*cking Moslems.” across our driveway.
I didn’t need the police to tell me who did it. I already knew. Everyday after school a gang of white young men would be waiting for us. As the school day came closer to an end, I had to remind myself to breathe. My mother was always nervous on the way back home from school. Her breath heaved in the driver’s seat. We always drove in silence, each one quietly praying today would be different. But it never was.
They terrorized us.
They would block our car from entering our driveway so we would have to park in the street. The white bullies would stare at us — ready to pounce. From the moment the car door opened, it would start.
“Here come the terrorists.” one of them said as he spit in my direction. “F*ing I-raqis. Get out of our town you sand ni*gers!” It sounded like noise to me — coming at us at the same time from different mouths.
I knew the routine. My mother held my wailing baby brother tight in her arms, and with our heads down we ran into the house. Our home- the only safe space we had, was now tainted with fear.
I was eight and it was Bush Senior’s America. My teachers proudly shared that our brave soldiers were fighting for democracy in the Gulf War. As I thought about the hateful language that was yelled at us, and the state of our house, I felt absolute confusion. I was fulfilling my American duty every week at school. We were writing encouraging and thankful letters to send to soldiers fighting to protect our country.
My teacher never knew what had happened to me. She couldn’t relate to my world; Her white skin was American, my brown skin wasn’t. She overlooked my loss of appetite at lunch or my many moments of disengagement. She didn’t pick up on the growing fear in my eyes or the darkness underneath them from recurring nightmares. She didn’t notice that I started hiding my gold Allah pendant inside my shirt. She mistook the silence that engulfed me for good behavior.
My parents weren’t called in for a teacher parent conference because I was different. Even in second grade, I had expertly learned how to pretend being whole when in reality I was crumbling to pieces. But most of all, I felt embarrassed that somehow it was my fault, and I didn’t want anyone to find out I was un-American.
The trees in front of our house had bright yellow ribbons tied around them to show support for American soldiers. I worked hard at acting just like my white friends. Every morning I dutifully stood facing the flag, with my hand on my chest, and wholeheartedly recited the Pledge of Allegiance. In my mind we were just as Americans as our neighbors, but I started realizing that to others, we definitely weren’t.
- beta (Urdu): my child
*Dedicated to all of the children who carry the burden of secret traumas. This story is based on true events from my childhood.
A reminder to educators: Child trauma occurs more than you think. More than two thirds of children reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16. (https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma)
Build meaningful relationships and be present for your students. But most of all be gentle- you may not be aware of what they carry inside of them.