The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Two years after 9/11, when I was 6 years old, my family moved from Cairo to a predominantly white neighborhood in central New Jersey.

It was all too common for the kids in the area to make comments like, “Hey Engy, don’t blow up the building.”

The Caravan

I grew up being called a terrorist. People around the country were greatly impacted by 9/11, especially my neighbors who had felt this act of terror firsthand. On its anniversary, my fifth-grade class honored a moment of silence — one that was interrupted by a student asking me, “Why are you being silent? You probably don’t even care.”

Kids can be cruel, but what hurt most was the feeling of being excluded from the community. Why wasn’t I allowed to remember those who had been mercilessly murdered, the families who had lost their loved ones or the first responders who had sacrificed their lives?

What made me so different from the other kids?

The discrimination I felt was isolating and hurtful — especially at such a young age. It made me feel that I didn’t want to be Muslim. I didn’t want to be Egyptian. I just wanted to be Engy from Watchung, New Jersey, a typical American teenager.

It wasn’t until my first day of high school, in history, that a window of understanding was opened for me. The teacher used a curriculum from Facing History and Ourselves, an educational nonprofit that provides teachers with tools to engage their students in examining bigotry.

Mrs. Lott-Jones started the class with “First They Came,” a famous poem by Martin Niemöller. The narrator is the ultimate bystander — someone who is present for multiple acts of injustice and intolerance but who chooses not to speak up.

”Kids can be cruel, but what hurt most was the feeling of being excluded from the community.”

For me, this poem reinforced that we all have the choice to be perpetrators, bystanders or up-standers. As the narrator learned, if you’re not willing to stand up for others, how can you expect someone to stand up for you?

Facing History taught me that each of us has a decision to make and a role to play. I decided to stand up for myself and for others. It also helped me realize that I didn’t have to be ashamed of who I am.

I came to love learning about one of my classmates’ Jewish heritage and sharing my Muslim heritage with him. He raised questions for which I didn’t always have answers – which led me to do more of my own research, studying the politics involving Israel and Egypt, and asking my family questions.

Looking back now that I am a few years older, I realize that the class enabled me to have these empowering conversations, sparking meaningful, inclusive dialogue and motivating me and my classmates to want to effect change.

Young people need safe spaces to learn about history through different perspectives, explore how moments from the past influence the present and understand how our own identities take shape with our learning. It is through such experiences that young people can develop the agency to stand up for what they believe in.

Education has provided me the tools to stand up, speak out and stop hate. It is now my duty to pass those tools to others. That is how real change is created.

This story about immigrants and refugees was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Engy Gadelmawla is a Facing History and Ourselves alumna and member of its NextGeneration group. A 2018 graduate of Drew University, she now works as a legal and compliance analyst at a private equity firm in New York.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. I too was bullied mercilessly in fourth grade to sixth grade after moving back from Pakistan after being born in Georgia. I went to north wood elementary and Haynes bridge middle school in Roswell , Georgia. I was called terrorist, paki , camel jockey. All of the stereotypes of a Middle East / south Asian person. When I was young I was not properly taught about terrorism and violence and about the world because I was moving all the time. I never got a proper education. I would often get in trouble for my retaliation, instead of knowledge being taught about respecting others origins. They always sat me in the back. It wasn’t until I moved to New Jersey. Where I received proper education and equality. I had a lot of problems in my home life growing up and for the schools in the south to neglect my education , safety and well being just further stunted my development. It’s not until now at 26 that I have got my act together and I put all of that behind me.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *