Can you wipe away hate with a sponge?

My gut reaction when I heard about the hatred-inspired anti-Muslim protests that are taking place later this week across the country was to grab my children, crawl under the covers of my bed, and distract us all with a Sponge Bob marathon. It’s overwhelming to try to wrap my head around the idea that these events are actually happening. So my instinct is to retreat to a safe haven and hide, much like I did when I was young child.

The difference is that when I was little, I had to wait until Saturday morning for the Looney Toons, and the threats were largely external—fostered by a Cold War and a common enemy that united us all in fear of a nuclear holocaust. Today, in this increasingly confusing world I wonder, who exactly is the enemy? Is it . . . me? My children? My Muslim family members who do amazing things that don’t make the headlines: strengthening government systems for the Department of Homeland Security, conducting flight safety tests on aircrafts, performing skin grafts on burn victims? Is it ISIS? The Taliban? Russia? Or is it the armed hate groups united under a false banner of “humanity” planning to target mosques and Muslim communities to intimidate and bully us in an attempt to take back America from “people like you”?

How do I explain any of this to my kids, from under my blankets, as they stare at me, wondering what is wrong? They aren’t little enough to shelter them the way I want, or interested in snuggling with me anymore (although Sponge Bob is still a hit). One is a teenager who towers over me and the other is quickly catching up. They can’t be distracted or shielded from the ugly parts of American life. They will hear about them, and they need someone to help make sense of them. But how do you make sense of this insanity? (This is not a rhetorical question. I’m serious. I have no idea.)

What finally gets me out of bed, apart from needing to drive my kids to basketball practice, is the hope that comes with remembering that for every hate monger out there, there are many more non-Muslim Americans who still value the principles of inclusion, diversity, equality, and freedom. I make sure I tell my kids about them and what they are doing to make sure people learn about who we really are and what we represent.

In my own experience, these are the librarians who invite me to Houston to share my multicultural books that introduce Islamic traditions with library patrons as part of an exhibit called “Poetic Voices of the Muslim World.” These are the teachers who will bring their students, who are part of an Arabic language immersion program that was already the target of protests and hatred there, to hear me speak. These are the editors who push for a book where Curious George celebrates Ramadan, in an effort to represent all major holidays. They took a chance, without knowing the incredible joy a little monkey would bring American Muslims, who feel honored by the gesture, and the message it sends that we are worthy of being included.

These actions, and the countless others like them who have given voice to American Muslims like me and encourage us to share our lives, do a lot to combat hate and vile behavior. I strongly believe that the vast majority of Americans are above these protests and embrace love and true humanity. I desperately want to believe that my kids don’t need to be scared—and that the only thing that will come out of these protests is shame for those who promoted and participated in them.  


Librarians: A lifeline to education

The beautiful library at the Awsaj School, DohaI recently went on my biggest adventure as an author yet, one that took me all the way to Doha, Qatar, where I was invited by a group of librarians for a week of visits at five schools. It was my first time in the tiny Gulf state, and a wonderful chance to share my books and experiences as a writer. Doha is a fascinating place, with massive construction projects everywhere and a huge push to develop, particularly the education sector.

I was warmly welcomed at each of the schools, and ushered into the most impressive schools libraries I have ever seen. The large and breathtaking spaces were staffed with both upper and lower elementary librarians, as well as several assistants. I was struck by how the schools truly seemed to value the crucial role that librarians play in the academic development of their students. Connected to each student, the librarians worked to develop special projects, helped with research and assignments, set up programs and guests, and fostered a love of reading and seeking knowledge. 

I spent lovely time with the librarians, who took care of me during the school days, even packing me homemade lunches and snacks, and went above and beyond to entertain me after hours. They took to me to delicious dinners, invited me into their homes (where I, overcome with jetlag one afternoon, even napped), and went sightseeing with me. I learned about their lives and their families, where they had worked before, and what their futures held. Among the librarians I met, the Americans and Canadians were fairly certain that they would remain abroad until they retired. I assumed it was because life overseas was exciting and romantic, because they were part of such a close-knit expat community, or because the compensation and lifestyle was so comfortable. But, that wasn’t always the case.

“There are no jobs for us back home,” was what I sadly kept hearing. I was jarred by this news. It breaks my heart that these talented and committed educators feel like they can’t come home if they want and share their knowledge and expertise because there aren’t enough opportunities left for them. But we still need them! In a recent Huffington Post blog post, Sense and Sensibility: Why Librarians Remain Essential to Our Schools, Yohuru Williams defends the role of librarians (aka media specialists) and other key staff, and why they must be preserved in spite of budget cuts. I hope his arguments, and others like them resonate with lawmakers and those who make tough staffing decisions. Librarians, as Williams says, must be seen as lifelines who, in addition to all of their traditional roles, “help students to unlock and decode the vast amount of information now at their fingertips.”

The creative "lesson tent" at the Greenfield Community School Library in DubaiI am eternally grateful to the librarians who have championed my work and who continue to share it with their students, taking care that all are represented. They have made me feel at home wherever I visit, preparing their students and creating excitement around my presentations. And they serve as a great source of ideas and sounding boards, especially since they are so in tune with what kids like to read. I’m thrilled that I had the chance to make an amazing trip to Doha and spend time with such kind and thoughtful people. And as an author whose greatest ally is the librarian, I hope that America isn’t willing to lose any more to far away places, or at least not to let anywhere else value them more than we do.