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UMD students discuss impacts of Islamophobia

Members of a student panel Najma Mohamed (from left), Iman Geleto, Azrin Awal, Nazila Wazirzada, Isaac Bukenya, and Mueez Ahmad participate in the UMD’s Muslim Student Association “Addressing Islamophobia,” event at the Kirby Ballroom in Duluth Tuesday. (Clint Austin /

Azrin Awal was 3 years old when she immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh because her parents wanted their children to have the best opportunities possible. Awal was a 4-year-old Muslim on Sept. 11, 2001.

Trembling at the podium on Tuesday as she remembered the days that followed, she explained the fear that she saw in her parents when the news reported that the terrorists were Muslim.

"I don't think as a child, no moment hurts more than when you see your parents in utter shock and fear because they don't how to protect you and that's what they promised. They promised to protect you. It hurt me so much that I couldn't be there for my parents. I didn't know how to comfort them," she said.

Azrin Awal tells of what it is like to be a Muslim living in the United States.Separated from her mother and put into a room at an airport, she said she was stripped and patted down as a 4-year-old. She went from being a bubbly, happy kid to a quiet child fearing other people and carrying "so much guilt for my identity." She began exploring other religions, but always came back to Islam.

By the time she enrolled at the University of Minnesota Duluth, she realized she wasn't alone in her struggle about religion and began speaking up about her faith.

Awal was among six Muslim UMD students who spoke to in a packed Kirby Ballroom at UMD for a panel discussion on Islamophobia.

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and, similar to people in other religions, Muslims vary on how religious they are, Awal said. She explained that Islam forbids suicide and killing innocent people, and that Muslims reject suicide bombers. The term "jihad" has been misconstrued and its true meaning is the internal struggle to be a good person, she said.

"Islam means peace. To be Muslim means to submit to peace and one God," she said.

Mueez Ahmad, president of the Muslim Student Association at UMD, said he's become more open to discussing Islam since November's election. Several students said they've seen more support for the Muslim Student Association on campus since President Donald Trump was elected.

The students said they haven't been directly subjected to rhetoric or actions because of their religion since November, but they worry that it could happen to them or their families at some point. However, the hate crimes and Islamophobic sentiments they've heard about since the election makes them uncomfortable and scared, several students said.

"I am an immigrant and a Muslim and it's scary when these negative things are targeting you and your family. I haven't been affected by it personally, but it's scary to think that your father, your mother, your sister could all be targeted at any point, even if they're just at the grocery store and somebody could say something to them," UMD student Nazila Wazirzada said. "It's scary because that could personally happen to my family. Trying to not worry about that so much and focus on the positive is an everyday struggle."

UMD student Iman Geleto said she sees negative comments about Muslims made by UMD students on social media that they wouldn't have the courage to say to her in person. When she goes out in Duluth, people don't make comments, but instead give her "a look," she said.

"There isn't a lot of Muslims here in Duluth as a city, in general, and it's just new to them sometimes. But at the same time, there is some ugly stares and they give you the look like 'who are you,' like you're some kind of alien type of thing," she said.