By: Aleena Pasha
I am completely still from the waist up. I feel a tingle in my right leg, an indicator of my imminent shaking nervous leg. I knew it was coming. I was actually surprised it was so far into my trip. But I knew the day would come when I heard the comment-
“I hate muslims.”
It came from my favorite student, in my favorite class, in my favorite school in my time teaching in Warsaw. I knew the summer was going to be difficult. My cousin’s Polish husband had given me some warning- “Be careful though, Aleena. Poland is great and beautiful but… people aren’t always so… open-minded.” He was speaking from experience being that his brother would openly make racist comments to his wife, my Pakistani cousin, Fatimah. Flash forward to my third week there where I was always stared at for an uncomfortably long time on the metro, yelled at in a convenience store when asking for directions, and been called an “English Kurwa” in the street (from what I was explained, he was going for in Polish was “fuck you foreigner”)
I knew it was coming.
The class erupted in yelling, laughter, agreement, objection, who knows? They were speaking in Polish.
In my presentation I mention American holidays and include the three major religions practiced in America: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I show a Christmas tree and say “What religion celebrates this.” Christianity. Then I show a menorah. Judaism. Then I show a mosque. Islam. I have been waiting since day 1 to get a bad reaction when bringing up Islam and today it finally happened.
“I hate muslims.”
I unclenched my fists, the marks of my fingernails temporarily imprinted in my palms- what I did to restrain myself while I gathered my thoughts.
I took a deep breath and walked towards him. I stood next to his desk in the middle of the classroom and told the boys to quiet down.
“Why do you hate muslims, Sebastian?”
“They kill people. They blew up a church in Spain”
Another deep breath.
“So just because one person makes a terrible decision, all the people of the same religion should be blamed?”
“Yes, they are all bad.”
*I take another deep breath*
“Did you know last year in America, a man went into a clinic that offered abortions and shot and killed a bunch of people in the name of ‘Christianity’. He is a bad person, right?”
“So is every Christian a bad person because that man did something so terrible?”
*He pauses and smiles mischievously*
*His classmates laugh at his joke*
“Oh, well, everyone here is Christian. So are you a bad person?”
“No” He says matter of factly, the laughter dying down.
“Are all your friends here bad people?”
“No” *he says seriously and obviously*
“Do you think I am a bad person?”
He looks me in the eyes very sincerely. “No”
“Well see, I’m Muslim.”
The class feel completely silent. The kid’s jaw just popped open, and he didn’t know what to say.
“You guys see, you can’t just judge an entire religion based on the acts of people who are doing terrible things. I hate those terrorists just as much as you do. But Islam is not terrorism. I’m not a terrorist.”
I walked back to the front of the classroom and clicked to move on to the next slide. Through sheer dumb luck the next picture I showed them was of Robert Lewandowski, the most famous soccer player in Poland and everyone’s hero. Within a minute it was back to to the high energy, eager participation lesson that had begun.
At the end of the class each boy came up to me and said thank you and goodbye, shook my hand, gave me a hug. The boy, Sebastian and his friend came up to me at the very end and gave me a box of chocolates as a gift for it being my last day there. His friend gave me the box, gave me a hug and left. Sebastian hung back and stood next to me for a few seconds just looking at me with the most apologetic eyes. I addressed the expression in his face.
”Sorry if I made you uncomfortable.” I said as I gave him a little pat on the shoulder.
He looked at me.
“No don’t… I… I understand now.”