‘The first day I wore my hijab into school, my gym teacher gave me a zero and made me sit on the bench.’
“I’m an Asian Muslim woman, a proud mom of six kids. My oldest just graduated from medical school and got engaged. My parents are from Pakistan. l was born in Queens, but we moved upstate to a rural area where there were not only no Muslims, but there were also no minorities.
“I got more involved in my religion probably when I was in the 10th or 11th grade. At the time, the Bosnia-Herzegovina war was going on. I started to learn about that war, to understand what Islam meant, and began wearing my head covering. You usually don’t start until you reach maturity. My parents were religious, but my mom didn’t wear the hijab. She was very supportive when I started wearing it, but she didn’t wear it.
“The first day I wore my hijab into school, my gym teacher gave me a zero and made me sit on the bench. She said, ‘You can’t play with that thing on.’ I loved my school, and all of the sudden I was traumatized. Needless to say, I had no one to advocate for me. I didn’t want to tell my parents. They had a language barrier, so I knew they couldn’t advocate for me, and I couldn’t advocate for me. I wish I was the type of person who could say, I’m going to go to the principal or I’m going to start a petition. Instead, I just took it off. The following year, in 12th grade, I had the courage to put it back on; it took me a whole year. I didn’t have that gym teacher anymore so it was easier.
“I think I realized I wanted to be able to organize, I wanted to be able to create awareness about my religion, my community, and help marginalized people because of what I went through. It wasn’t just that day, it was continuous. That was a pivotal moment in my life where I realized what I wanted to do, and it was to normalize different marginalized communities so they don’t feel like they’re second-class citizens or they don’t feel like they don’t belong. We all belong here.
‘I saw changes happening. You could see the needle shifting where you could help your community become normalized, you could celebrate diversity within the community.’
“I ended up going to Hofstra University for my bachelor’s and master’s. I got married to someone from Long Island, so I just stayed after college, first in Valley Stream, now I live in Woodbury. I got my master’s in education and was a biology teacher. I taught for one year, then I got pregnant.
“I had babies for a while. When I finally thought I was going back after my daughter was in pre-K, I got involved with a couple of campaigns for local politicians. I was ready to go, finally ready to do something and just about to start my doctorate program. I met some people in government and they said, Why don’t you try working here part time? I ended up working for the town clerk of Hempstead two days a week, and just fell in love with it.
“I saw changes happening. You could see the needle shifting where you could help your community become normalized, you could celebrate diversity within the community. I fell in love with it right away. Once I started working full time for [Nassau] County Executive Laura Curran, I saw there was a big disparity within the Asian community on Long Island.
“There’s no infrastructure for that community. People just believe all Asians are OK, they’re well off, they don’t need services, and that’s not the case. I saw it over and over again in government; when you’re talking about minorities, when you’re allocating resources, the Asian community is not included. When I was looking for community groups, there were none, and that’s when I realized I wanted to create some sort of organization that does research on the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] community.
“When Laura Curran lost the election, I pivoted. I think it was the next day. I wanted to create an organization that operates on its own. I talked to a lot of people and eventually came up with the Asian American Institute for Research and Engagement. We work with different universities, different organizations; we’re almost like an umbrella organization. We use research as our basis; the numbers are telling our story.
‘The American population doesn’t even have the basics about what countries Asians are from, what languages they speak … You’re dealing with the fastest-growing population in America.’
“Anti-Asian discrimination has always been there over time in our history; it’s just amplified. It happened on September 11 with the Muslim community, actually the entire South Asian community. The same thing happened with the COVID pandemic. The East Asian community was attacked, not just the Chinese community. It stems from a lack of awareness, from comments that were made at the time. People were afraid.
“Our survey showed 68 percent of Asians felt some sort of discrimination at some point. That’s a huge number. If 68 percent of your population is feeling uncomfortable, that they don’t belong, that they fear discrimination, that’s a problem. We need to figure out solutions.
“The American population doesn’t even have the basics about what countries Asians are from, what languages they speak. Those are the things we have to educate our communities about. You’re dealing with the fastest-growing population in America, but no one really understands the population.
“Last year, we fielded a project on anti-Asian hate and Asian attitudes toward it. Now we’re working on a program to integrate Asian American history into mainstream classes. For example, when you’re talking about American history you can mention Asian American people who have influenced the civil rights movement or talk about the Chinese railroad workers. You can talk about Islam and how it’s affected algebra or chemistry, or even just the fact that the cap and gown originated from Muslims. All these things should be in our curriculum; it would solve so many problems.
“This summer, we want to focus on language access, because our poll showed language was a barrier. People can speak English, but they’re not proficient, and that makes a big difference. For the Asian immigrant population, even if they’re educated, they have a certain level of comprehension.
“On Long Island, we want to prove that there is this language proficiency issue and that it’s affecting services from health care, schools, the government. We don’t want it that every time you go to the doctor or your child’s school, your child is translating for you. That happens a lot. We want to be the voice of Asians on Long Island.
Interviewed by Barbara Schuler