People & Places

Being Muslim in middle school in Cedar Rapids

Twin sisters, 14, feeling ripples from a tense election

Rahma Elsheikh, 14, of Cedar Rapids talks with a friend at tennis practice at Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids on
Rahma Elsheikh, 14, of Cedar Rapids talks with a friend at tennis practice at Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. The twins cite their desire to continue going to school with their friends as a reason that they want to continue attending public school after they leave Franklin Middle School. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Raafa Elsheikh and her eighth-grade classmates in earth science at Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids are watching a news report designed for teenagers.

On this Wednesday afternoon the reporter is talking about a basketball league for Muslim women, and explaining how the regulations let the players wear head coverings.

Raafa, a fashionable and outspoken 14-year-old, is wearing a headscarf herself, a glittering, blush-colored number. A tall, sandy-haired boy in the class turns and informs her that Islam is sexist. It’s not the first time he has said something like this.

Raafa starts to tell him that her religion values modesty. Their teacher overhears and shushes them.

Later the same day, Raafa’s twin sister, Rahma, is sitting in an assembly at the middle school, 300 20th St. NE. She and some of her 650 classmates are squeezed into the gym bleachers ready to watch a scene from the upcoming school production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Rahma and a friend are talking when a student behind her interrupts and begins discussing his “white male privilege” in a tone dripping with sarcasm.

Rahma stares ahead. The boy tells her to enjoy her “liberal bubble.”

A changing experience

The twin sisters are typical teenagers in many ways. After school, they’re glued to their cellphones or biking to an ice cream stand with friends. They’ve played tennis and soccer, and run cross-country for school teams. Both are in the school’s program for gifted students and volunteer through the youth group at their mosque.

Rahma enjoys academics, sometimes even helping her older sister with her homework, while Raafa excels in art and enjoys drawing.

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But the Elsheikh sisters, who are only just finding their political voices, say the 45th president already has changed their experience at school. Ever since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and inauguration, the girls’ array of pink, leopard-print and black-and-white patterned headscarves seems to draw a string of snide comments from some classmates.

Their sister, Afnan, 17, a senior at Kennedy High School, has seen changes, too.

The day after the election, she staged a school demonstration in which students carried handmade signs declaring a stance against discrimination. Outside the school, they were met by boys who had lined up their pickup trucks and displayed American and Confederate flags. The protesters walked a mile to a busy intersection and turned back, as the boys drove back and forth along their route.

Afnan says she hasn’t done anything overtly political at school since then, but the boys continue to make their statement.

Homeschool option

Rahma and Raafa have spent their academic lives in Cedar Rapids public schools. Their four older siblings all attended public schools, too. But this year, as the girls inch closer to enrolling full time at Kennedy High, their mother, Farida Osman, has tried to push her twins in a different direction — homeschool.

Osman and her husband, Abdelbagi Elsheikh, moved to Cedar Rapids 23 years ago. They came from Saudi Arabia, although they both grew up in Sudan.

Osman is a radiology technician at a hospital in town and an interpreter for Arabic-speaking patients.

Years ago, she says, she and a friend considered homeschooling their children together, when her three oldest children — now 26, 24 and 22 — were young. But the friend moved away and the children felt safe at school, so Osman made no changes.

It’s normal, Osman says, for her to ask her children about the possibility of homeschooling, although a few years ago she wouldn’t have stressed over her twins enrolling at Kennedy High. But, back then, she also wouldn’t have expected Afnan to feel she should stage a protest walkout.

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“For adults, if you go straight forward you’ll be OK,” she said. “But kids don’t have mercy.”

When Afnan started coming home with troubling stories, Osman’s arguments for homeschooling became more urgent.

They’re staying

Rahma and Raafa are adamant: they like their school and want to be with their friends. Snide comments from middle-schoolers are to be expected and most of the time they can fend for themselves, they say. They have teachers they trust, too, who step in when they hear overt sexism or Islamophobia in the classroom.

Raafa says she rarely reports classmates for their comments, even though “it hurts sometimes when they say something that offends me.”

The girls insist on staying in the public school district which has about 17,000 students. They say they belong there — and they have barely even considered the idea of forgoing enrollment at Kennedy High.

“The main reason we moved here was for their education,” Osman said. “We didn’t experience any problems at the school before. But when something like this happens, and the main reason we are here is for their education — that was like, ‘Oh no.’ ”

She said she may try to convince her youngest child, 11-year-old Ahmed, to try homeschooling.

The twins concede they’re sometimes outspoken when they hear comments degrading Islam. But Rahma and Raafa insist they never seek out political trouble at school, though they say trouble has begun to find them.

If anything, Rahma says, she’s more interested in learning about the governmental systems that elected both a president like Barack Obama and one like Donald Trump.

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— “The Promise” is a weekly report from a collaboration between The Gazette, the Monitor in McAllen, Texas, the Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, and The Big Roundtable. Journalists are sharing tales of people in their communities as they tell of three cities in the age of Trump. Catch up at thebigroundtable.com

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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