banner-optimized_0_0.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Standing Up to Racism After 9/11 Changed One Immigrant Teenager’s Life

In the weeks following 9/11, I was a brand-new student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. I wanted to find out how the backlash against South Asians — my own community — was affecting young people. So I visited Berkeley High School, where I met a group of teenagers combatting racism, bias, and fear among their peers. I wrote a story for AsianWeek that began like this:

“Fatima Shah, 17, missed school last week because her father was afraid kids would spit on her. She had reason to worry. The Berkeley High School senior wears a Salwar-Kameeze, a traditional South Asian dress, and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, other students gave her dirty looks. Some told her she didn’t belong.”

Fatima’s peers told me about similar experiences, including a student who was hit on the back of the head and had to be hospitalized for what was largely believed to be a hate attack.

Twenty years later, I caught up with Fatima Shah, who still lives in the Bay Area, to talk about her experiences after 9/11 and how they shaped her over the last two decades.

Fatima Shah, standing outside of Berkeley High School. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

‘We felt really vulnerable’

Standing outside Berkeley High School, Fatima Shah gasped at how young the students looked to her. It triggered a flood of memories about how alienated she felt as a teenager — an ESL student and a recent immigrant.

“I would spend a lot of my time thinking and just wishing to God, I will do anything to just fit in,” Shah said. “That was my biggest life goal was to blend in, not stand out, because it was not cool to stand out.”

She remembers some of her classmates calling her “dirty Muslim” even before 9/11. It was hard to reconcile those experiences with Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal, open place.

“People want to find the enemy, and anyone that looks like the enemy, they become very easily targeted, even in communities like Berkeley,” Shah reflected.

She had come to California from Pakistan just a few years before 9/11, on her 13th birthday. Her family of seven lived in a tiny apartment in Berkeley, and her dad supported them as a busboy in a restaurant. He agreed to let his daughters go to school, as long as they wore the traditional salwar kameez.

After the attacks, though, Shah’s father insisted on keeping his daughters home from school. He read reports of attacks targeting South Asian and Muslim people and wanted to protect his kids from potential danger.

“There were a lot of incidents, and we felt really vulnerable,” Shah said.

Before the attacks, Shah had started participating in a student group at Berkeley High called Youth Together. Members of the group came to Shah’s house and convinced her dad to send the kids back to school. Though the principal was initially reluctant, Shah and other students lobbied to be able to hold a first-of-its-kind teach-in about South Asian and Muslim culture.

“People would ask me a question like, ‘Oh, who’s bin Laden?’ and ‘You’re Muslim, but why don’t you cover your hair?’ or ‘What’s the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim? You both have long hair.’” Shah remembered.

Shah’s mom brought biryani for her classmates to try, and the group put on an all-school assembly, performing dances and talking about their faith.

“I remember very clearly being very anxious because I was on the stage. I have always wanted to blend in and here I am standing out. But at the same time, I felt a lot of excitement to talk about my experiences and [feel the crowd] supporting me,” Shah recalled.

“In the back of my head, I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be attacked. I don’t want somebody to throw something at me.’ I did not want to be booed off the stage because I couldn’t speak English clearly,” she said.

“We want other kids to know that we are as American as they are,” Shah said back in 2001, in the AsianWeek article. “It doesn’t matter if we dress differently. They said, ‘Go back to your country, your country is responsible.’ But they don’t even know where Pakistan is.”

Shah also recalls leading her classmates through an exercise to help them understand scapegoating.

She and other Youth Together students asked for a volunteer. They taped a sign reading “terrorist” to that person’s back, then asked others to shout out different stereotypes.

“Foreigner, box-cutter, rag-head, Aladdin!” the students chanted.

Black and Latinx students said hearing from Shah and her fellow South Asian classmates taught them to see their peers in a new light, to realize that South Asian students also experienced racism and were subject to stereotypes.

“If I was that person, I’d feel real bad. I’d go home and start to cry,” said Bianca Watkins, a 15-year-old quoted in the 2001 AsianWeek article. Watkins volunteered to be the target in the scapegoating exercise and admitted that she had made stereotypical comments about Arab Americans and South Asians in the past. “But I take it all back now.”

A picture from Khokha’s 2001 article about Fatima and Saima Shah (far right) and their peers, featured on the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, which is led by community historians. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Building alliances and allies

Standing in front of her former high school, Shah looked at a picture from September 2001. It captured a group of South Asian students, smiling, some in turbans, some in salwar kameez, some in jeans. They were all wearing green armbands, another of the group’s efforts to show solidarity and create a feeling of safety and community. Students from many different backgrounds wore armbands that fall at Berkeley High to indicate that they were allies — whether that meant eating lunch with a South Asian or Muslim student or walking them home.

“A blond white guy will have it on his backpack. And then African American girls had it around her wrist,” Shah recounted. “It really created a community, a place for me where I felt safe.”

Shah said the armbands also helped her feel a sense of belonging as an American. The teach-ins allowed her to humanize herself to her classmates and focus on shared experience, not difference.

Watching the students on campus today, in 2021, Shah said she has a message for them. “Become a friend with somebody that looks completely opposite of who they are in every possible way,” she said. “Become a friend with a Muslim student that looks completely different. Become a friend with ESL students that recently arrived to the country.”

“There are so many commonalities in our experiences as teenagers. And yet there are two different planets that we live on, and it’s amazing to coexist,” she said.

The story of Shah and the other Youth Together students is one of several featured on Berkeley’s South Asian Radical History walking tour. Participants stop in front of Berkeley High, look at the picture of the students and hear the story of their courage.

“I’m amazed that these recent immigrant kids, these working-class kids showed up in a new school, that they managed to build alliances between communities and they managed to help bring safety not only just for themselves but for every other targeted student in their school,” said community historian Anirvan Chatterjee, who co-leads the tours with his wife, Barnali Ghosh.  “One by one, white, African American, Latino, Asian American, mixed-race high school students, they all started putting on these green armbands. And little by little, the rate of attacks started to come down. They helped bring safety not only for themselves but for every other student at their school.”

The lessons Shah learned about allyship through Youth Together pushed her to pursue a career in education. She went on to community college, then attended UC Berkeley. Today she’s a counselor at Berkeley City College. She mostly works with undocumented students, refugee students and English-language learners. She helps them figure out their higher education goals, apply to four-year colleges and find jobs.

“I like to humanize my students and hear them and connect with them,” Shah said, the same way that teach-in 20 years ago helped her high school peers humanize her.

She doesn’t see as many working-class South Asian students in Berkeley these days, she said. But she connects deeply with undocumented students and refugees from many countries.

“I help them break down their goals. So when I hear students say, ‘I just immigrated from Guatemala and I want to become a medical doctor,’ I say, ‘Good, that’s a very admirable goal. But let’s break it down to small goals. To learn the language so you can have a better foundation. It’s not gonna be right away. It’s gonna take these steps.’”

But Shah said she still feels the sting of prejudice in the place she’s lived for decades now. She recently bought her own house in Albany, just north of Berkeley, and says some of her new neighbors asked her where she came from.

“The question others you,” she said. “Then you’re reminded that you have to prove yourself in so many ways to be American. It’s a lot of work.”

Note: Sasha Khokha’s partner is a teacher at Berkeley High School who was not on staff back in 2001.

Copyright 2021 KQED