Seventeen girls sit in a second-floor classroom at their Islamic school in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.
The whiteboard in their AP U.S Government class features notes about the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment and the Declaration of Independence. They’re questioning whether these rights afforded to Americans apply to them.
Their teacher, Nadia Ismail, asks what in particular feels restricted right now.
“Freedom of speech,” a girl shouts. “Representation,” another says. “Religion” is next.
It’s been two weeks since they were sent home for a few days because a hate letter was mailed to the school that threatened, in violent detail and using slurs, to kill Palestinian American and Muslim kids. The letter celebrated the murder of suburban 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume. And it called his alleged killer — who prosecutors say had been listening to conservative radio about Israel and Gaza — a “national hero.”
Police in the suburb say they’re investigating the letter as one of several targeting religious and racial minorities in the area.
“It feels nerve-racking, and I’m scared most of the time,” said Mays, a student whose last name, like others’ in this article, isn’t being printed to protect her privacy and safety. “We can’t leave our school. We have to be watched by bodyguards just to walk to our parents’ car. The bathroom doors are locked. It’s difficult.”
The kids are navigating hate at home while they remain worried and devastated for loved ones in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israel’s siege has killed at least 10,300 Palestinians and counting — among them more than 4,200 children. A preceding attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas killed 1,400 Israelis last month.
Palestinian refugees founded this school 37 years ago as Illinois’ first Islamic school with the mission to empower Muslim girls — it’s still all-girls in grades six and up — to be outspoken leaders and advocates. Students have advocated around social issues like climate change and school shootings. But they’re feeling alone as they face their own challenge and don’t sense much support outside their community.
“Everything I’ve taught them about speaking up, they’re now questioning,” says Principal Tammie Ismail, Nadia Ismail’s sister.
“We’re working to help them find ways to feel empowered,” the principal says. “We don’t want them to feel as Americans that their feelings, their voice is not valid, or because they are Muslim, or because they’re a Palestinian American, that their views don’t count.”
‘School should be where you feel safe’
Tammie Ismail sits in her small, cozy principal’s office. She just got back from providing fingerprints at a police station — she was the one who had opened the letter — in an attempt to isolate a potential suspect’s prints.
“[I’m] hoping that providing that might get us a step closer to identifying who decided to send hateful letters and hateful rhetoric and threatening messages to my students in my school, my community,” she said.
Ismail has been the principal for more than a decade. But her responsibility to keep kids safe feels as urgent as ever.
She, like many, feel that dehumanizing rhetoric spread by U.S. politicians and media about Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs has inspired hate, threats and acts of violence like Wadea’s murder, the hate letter and several other incidents in the area.
The school has hired private security. They’ve installed cameras. They’re keeping most window shades down. The Cook County sheriff’s office is helping patrol the area. Recess moved indoors for a couple weeks. Teachers were keeping track of kids who headed to the bathroom in case of an intruder.
Ismail is joining national webinars to learn tips about school security. And she’s applying for grants because money for all safety measures so far have come from the school’s budget and some parent fundraising.
“School should be where you feel safe. They can’t learn if they don’t feel safe,” Ismail said. “I think it’s going to take some time.”
The administration brought in grief counselors the day of Wadea’s funeral services, which were held in the mosque that shares a parking lot with the school. Just about every student went to the azza, as a Muslim wake is called in Arabic. Ismail said the boy’s killing traumatized her students.
But there’s only so much the school can do when kids feel scared outside the building, too.
“Going out as a hijabi is also scary,” said a student named Jana. “I get more stares sometimes. … It feels like I’m being watched by people whenever I go out for a walk.”
A classmate, May, said her parents don’t want her to wear anything in public that indicates she’s Palestinian.
“Right now, I don’t really feel like we’re in the land of the free,” she said. “I’m only 16 and people are scared of me because I’m Muslim and I wear the hijab and I’m Palestinian.”
Mays, the first student, wasn’t surprised by the letter. Her older sister was a student at the school when it was threatened two decades ago after the 9/11 attacks. So she expected to “get a letter that’s treating us like we’re not even human, like we deserve to die because we’re Palestinian.”
“When you look at the media, all this propaganda is put on the Muslim and Palestinian community,” she said. “And when you’re seen as these people who promote terrorism, or we stand with Palestine so we’re ‘animals,’ … what were you expecting?”
‘They’re not in pain anymore’
The safety concerns at home are coming while kids are sad and angry over Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and settler and police attacks in the West Bank that have killed and injured thousands of Palestinian civilians.
“Many of our students’ families have strong ties to Palestine,” Tammie Ismail said. “They have relatives there, grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts, that have been killed or that they don’t know whether they’re safe. … That’s a very real sadness, a very real deep experience that they’re having.”
Seven students from the school had moved to the West Bank in the past year with their families, but nobody has heard from them the past few weeks.
Emily, a fourth-grade teacher, said she’s scared for her own family but trying to console students at the same time, like the kindergartner who came to school crying in worry for his grandparents.
“Even if I might be a little bit scared, I know I can turn to a colleague and talk to them and we can make each other feel better,” Emily said.
May said students are leaning on their faith to remember that the Palestinians who have been killed — including Wadea — are martyrs, referring to the Muslim belief that those who have been oppressed and killed will go to heaven.
“It helps us to know they’re not in pain anymore,” she said.
That sense of shared grief and communal mourning has helped.
“It’s nice because we’re all people who understand what we’re going through,” Mays said. “I’m afraid that something bad might happen to me. But so is Jeanine, and so is Jana.”
A mother, Sarah, has two daughters at the school. She was thankful they were with classmates and teachers who could relate to their feelings.
“I think I would have been more worried if there was a potential of being in a setting where they may be exposed to bullying because of their backgrounds or the views that they hold,” Sarah said. “It’s a safe place.”
‘We can’t even express our identity’
The kids want to advocate for their people like they’ve been taught, and like they have for other causes. But speaking up for Palestinians is drawing backlash.
“Just for even saying something like ‘free Palestine,’ it’s twisted,” Jana said. “So we can’t even express our identity.
“Palestine protests downtown are labeled ‘pro-Hamas protests,’” she said. “We can’t even breathe without being scared.”
May spent the past couple weeks rewriting all but one of her 11 college application essays to remove mentions of her ethnicity and religion in her answers to identity and diversity questions.
“We’re not even sure if we should state that we’re Palestinian or we’re Muslim,” she said. “I think we’re all kind of trying not to. … We’re worried that the school might turn us away.”
That’s tough to hear for Tammie and Nadia Ismail, who want to empower girls at the school. They had to navigate those fears themselves when some in the community wanted to stay quiet about the hate letter.
“I think our community is, in some cases, so afraid of backlash, so afraid of the exposure, that they’d prefer to just keep it quiet,” Tammie Ismail said. “Just keep it between you and the police. Nobody else needs to know.”
Sarah, the mom, said her oldest daughter, a fifth grader, asks questions about Gaza and has been to protests.
“I want her to grow up knowing that it’s important to stand up for what’s right,” she said.