Teens come together for tolerance; Different backgrounds needn’t divide, they demonstrate

Saturday, September 15, 2001
Page 28A

Teens come together for tolerance
Different backgrounds needn’t divide, they demonstrate

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

When the man on the street asked whether he was a Muslim, Mohamed Maye knew to lie.

“I’m an atheist,” he said, then walked away.

Mohamed, 14, didn’t tell his parents about the man he met walking home from North Dallas High School. He feared that they’d make him stay home from school – the place he felt safest.

“At school, everybody gets along,” he said. “It’s, ‘If you’re Muslim, so what? You’re not the one who did it.'”

Mohamed and a group of North Dallas High School students gathered Friday morning in Thanks-Giving Square to offer themselves as an example to the rest of the world: They come from different countries, different faiths and different backgrounds, but they manage to get along.

“It’s only immature people who would get divided by something like this,” he said.

North Dallas High has students from 32 countries, a number that grew by one Thursday with the enrollment of two students from Afghanistan. The school has been honored for its international focus by the Texas Senate and the U.S. Congress. Many of its students come from lands broken by war, and they’ve experienced hatred up close.

“Our students know what it’s like to be discriminated against, and they know what it can do to people,” said principal Lynn Dehart. He estimated there are more than a dozen Muslim students enrolled and many Arab-Americans.

Mohamed first heard of Tuesday’s attacks in gym class. A teacher accidentally turned off a CD player and flipped on a radio that was broadcasting news of the World Trade Center. At first, Mohamed assumed it was a hoax, a ploy by the station to rile up listeners, like the time a DJ said Britney Spears was dead. But a few moments later, he realized it was real.

“I didn’t feel secure anymore,” he said.

Mohamed grew up in Somalia, a country ripped apart in the last decade by rival warlords to the extent that it has no functioning government.

“I came to America to get away from trouble,” he said. “I didn’t think something like that could happen here.”

His parents picked him up from school early Tuesday for a family meeting.

They told him not to tell anyone he was Muslim; they feared that he’d be made a target by people bent on revenge. But at school, he hasn’t felt threatened at all, he said. Others shared his experience.

Sophomore Sabina Celebic came to Dallas from Bosnia a year and a half ago. She saw the attacks unfold from a doctor’s office Tuesday. “Everything that had happened in Bosnia came back to my mind,” she said.

While her blond hair and European features help her avoid some stereotyping, she is also Muslim. She said there’s been no tension among students. “We all hang out together just like we did before,” she said.

At the event downtown Friday, student leaders gave speeches about the importance of tolerance. Several dozen students joined hands in a circle around the square, some closing their eyes and bowing their heads while John Lennon’s “Imagine” played.

“I’ve heard a lot of negative attitudes, but only from adults,” said Yonas Fesseha, a junior whose family is from Eritrea.