Before this summer, Manar Daghash had never been to a protest in her life. Since the most recent, lopsided conflict between Israel and Palestine began this July, she’s been to five, all of them through the streets of her native Chicago. Daghash, a 17-year-old Palestinian-American set to start her senior year of high school this week, says of the string of demonstrations, "They were kind of awesome."
"Before, it was just, ‘Oh, I support this YouTube video of whatever is happening.’ But recently I was like, ‘I’m a person. I’m going to show my support,’" she says on a muggy afternoon in the worn gathering space of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago’s South Side. Nearby, other teens are hanging out, kicking around a rubber ball, drawing and listening to old-school hip-hop ("Planet Rock"). The AAAN has been hosting its summer youth development program every year since 2006. The devastation in Gaza this summer has changed the tenor of the conversation in the room, where the overwhelming majority of teens come from refugee families with roots in Palestine.
As the war continues and the death toll climbs–it currently stands at 67 Israelis and more than 1,900 Palestinians–it has become a central topic of conversation for youth. "They’re starting to ask questions, and starting to notice the media," says Nesreen Hasan, a co-facilitator of the summer youth program. "They ask, ‘Why is the U.S. putting sanctions on Russia but not Israel?’ and ‘The U.S. is the safest place, and if the U.S. cared about people’s safety, why don’t they care about what’s happening in Palestine?’" Hasan, who is herself Palestinian, sees her job as being there to nurture young people’s ability to think critically for themselves as they explore their budding political consciousnesses. But they’re also grappling with their racial and political identities in addition to geopolitics and the ongoing war. For these young Palestinian-Americans, their already-heady adolescent years are complicated by the realities of life for Muslims and Arabs in post-September 11 America. "It’s frustration and confusion at the same time," Hasan says of the teens she works with.
"I watch a lot of documentaries, and some people say they’re scared of Arab people, and they believe that all Arabs are terrorists even if you’re not Muslim, which doesn’t make any sense to me," says Tariq Ouri, a 17-year-old Palestinian-American who’s about to start college at the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall. "I fast because you’re supposed to, and we pray with innocence to praise our Lord. [I’m] not violent at all. I have dreams to become a physician. I have a collection of Sperry [Top-siders]. I’m saving up for a Jeep Wrangler and I have dreams, and I’m OK."
Other young people described growing up with racial taunts as a part of regular school life. "I remember when Osama bin Laden was killed, and some kid in class said, ‘Oh, moment of silence for Sarah’s uncle who just died,’"says Sarah Morrar, who’s 17 years old and half-Irish and half-Palestinian. "I was like, ‘You guys are jerks.’"
The post-September 11 political discourse has so aggressively conflated Islam with terrorism with Arabs that Daghash and other teens say they often have to do the seemingly elementary work of explaining to prying strangers and cruel peers the interlocking religious and political histories of the Middle East. Young Palestinian-American activists in Chicago are well-versed in Palestinian history in part because they can trace their own family refugee histories alongside it, but also because they’ve been forced to defend themselves and explain their people’s existence to others.
Daghash, who wears a headscarf, recalls how she was waiting in line for a roller coaster with her siblings in July when her brother asked her to explain an Arabic word she’d just said. Daghash brushed her brother off, but a white man standing in line behind them leaned in and said he was interested in the answer, too. "So you’re Arab?" the man asked Daghash, who responded yes. "Then that’s why you wear a headscarf right?" he asked. "And then I was like, ‘No no no, rewind!’ I explained it to him. And it was a two-hour wait to the roller coaster, so it was the perfect opportunity to educate him."
"I would say the average American doesn’t know there’s a difference between being Arab and being Muslim, which is just tragic," Daghash says.
For years Morrar told people she was "Arabian" so she could sidestep these very conversations. "A lot of people have told me, ‘Palestine doesn’t exist,’ and called me a terrorist when I did say I’m Palestinian, so I was really discouraged to say it," Morrar says.
The ongoing offensive in Gaza has added another dimension to the difficulties young people face. "This month has been the most traumatizing month of my life, and I don’t even live in Gaza," says Daghash. Hearing her aunt’s trembling voice calling from the West Bank shakes her to her core. "It’s heartbreaking. I ripped apart the Palestinian conflict from all angles, from a non-Muslim Arab angle, from a Jewish perspective, from an Israeli perspective, but in no religion and in no sense of the word ‘humanity’ is it OK to kill innocent people."
Hasan, the program co-facilitator, has been where her teens are now. For her, the defining political moment in her life was September 11, 2001, which happened when she was a freshman in high school, and forever altered her life as an Arab-American. Other young Chicago-area Palestinian-American activists of different ages name other key global events–the Second Intifada of 2000 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008–as turning points that sparked their personal political awakenings. It is too early to say what impact this summer of carnage in Gaza will have on today’s Palestinian-American youth, but young people are watching.
Some of the largest U.S. protests against the war in Palestine this summer have been in Chicago, which together with its suburbs boasts the largest concentration of Palestinians in the U.S. But at her first protests this summer Daghash was impressed to see multiracial solidarity in the crowd. "At the protests you realize the biggest supporters come from other minority groups that have faced similar kinds of discrimination," she says. "A lot of the Latino community, and a lot of the African-American community come out. Apartheid and segregation was never right in Africa, and never right in America. So why’s it OK in Palestine?"
And after years of avoiding uncomfortable conversations about her identity, this summer Morrar says she’s starting to publicly claim her heritage. "I think it’s important for people to know I’m Palestinian. The struggle is real," Morrar says.
"And my dad taught me: be proud of who you are. Don’t forget where you came from."