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Muslim-American family finds relief from election rhetoric in the Olympics

Jack Lessenberry

I met a former student of mine for an early lunch Tuesday, in a little café in the bustling, cosmopolitan suburb of West Bloomfield. Anasie Tayyen has three children, who are seven, nine and 12, and has her hands full running after them and managing her pediatrician husband’s office.

But she now realizes she was also meant to be a writer.

Last week, she had a beautiful piece in the Huffington Post, called “The Olympics Chased the Bogeyman Away.” It begins with these lines:

"Being Muslim in America has been anything but easy this past year. The presidential election has been particularly hard on many Muslim-American children’s psychological well-being."

It’s been hard on Anasie’s, too.

She was born an American citizen; her parents came here from Syria in the 1970s. She has taught her kids “to be proud that they were both Muslim and American.” As she wrote in the Post, “our religion teaches us to serve humanity, and our country is great because its people love and respect each other.”

Things were fine till a year or so ago, when the presidential campaign started. Now, she said “what they hear from friends at school is that there’s something wrong or un-American with being a Muslim in this country.”

Suddenly they became very self-conscious. They are bilingual, but are now afraid to speak Arabic in public.

They worry about their mother, who wears the head scarf known as a hijab, and who has encountered a few Islamophobic incidents.

Her classmates told her he was going to build a wall around them because they are Muslim.

The children are not allowed to watch the news anymore; not since the seven-year-old began crying whenever the Republican presidential nominee appears on TV. Her classmates told her he was going to build a wall around them because they are Muslim.

Anasie spends a lot of time reassuring her children. They also worry that their father, who has been an American citizen for many years, will be sent back. But all this tension disappeared over the last few weeks during the Olympics.

Nobody in the family is much of a sports fan. But they watched the opening ceremonies for the display of different cultures from around the world, and then the kids were stunned. They caught sight of Ibtihaj Muhammad, an American fencer who went on the win a Bronze medal for Team USA.

"She showed the world that being Muslim in America was very much an American thing."

She was wearing a head scarf – the first Muslim-American female athlete ever to do so in the Olympics. Anasie doesn’t allow her children to jump on the couches. But she suspended the rule for the Olympics, especially when their hero competed. “She showed the world that being Muslim in America was very much an American thing,” their mom wrote.

For a while, instead of worrying about walls and deportation, her kids were obsessed with counting the number of medals Team USA has won.

This has been a hard year for Anasie. She has more reason to hate ISIS than most of us will ever know. They murdered her cousin in Syria, and then called his mother to brag.

She doesn’t understand why Americans don’t realize that ISIS no more represents American Muslims than David Koresh represented American Christians. All she knows is that she needs to go on setting an example for her children.

And she will be very glad when this election is over. At least she hopes so.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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