The Anti-Defamation League’s 11th annual Youth Conference brought together more than 500 students and teachers Nov. 9 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, focusing on confronting bias and hate through “courageous conversations.”
Sponsored by the ADL’s regional office representing eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware, 10th- and 11th-graders from across those states separated into smaller groups, with one representative from the 65 participating schools in each group.
The students, varying in backgrounds, discussed their commonalities and differences to eliminate stigmas, bullying and hate.
“We want the students to feel comfortable talking about things they may not feel comfortable saying in front of their classmates,” said Lisa Friedlander, education director of No Place for Hate, an ADL program. “It’s also an amazing experience for kids to be exposed … to students who are so different from them.”
The final workshop discussed how to bring back what they learned to their schools to implement it in an effective way.
They delved deep into conversations of identity, which Friedlander said is more important than ever.
No Place for Hate has received an unprecedented number of phone calls describing bias in classrooms, taking form in harassment, hate incidents or racial slurs.
“For so many of these kids who have never been outside their own backyard, this is an opportunity for them to really see a more global student population and to understand that there are people different from them,” she said. “You can’t hate what you know.”
After the workshops, everyone convened for a keynote speech by University of Pennsylvania Law School student Akbar Hossain.
Hossain was born in Bangladesh and spent his early years in Saudi Arabia.
His family immigrated to the U.S. through a diversity visa lottery when he was 9 years old — two days before 9/11.
“We were the Hossain family coming to JFK [International Airport] from Saudi Arabia on Sept. 9, 2001,” he said.
They didn’t know anyone, or much English, so his father paid a third party to help them resettle in New York.
Instead, they ended up in a motel in New Jersey. The third party never showed.
His father reached a breaking point: He didn’t want to be a burden on this country. He was ready to move back.
But the Hossain family took one last walk around that New Jersey town, and happened upon an Indian restaurant, a similar cuisine they recognized from home.
“My father starts talking to the manager and tells him what happened, and the manager goes, ‘Well, I might know someone in Philly who might be able to help you,’” he said.
They ended up in Norristown through this family, who helped them get an apartment, enroll Hossain and his two siblings in school, and get his father a job.
“And he didn’t ask for a penny, from this idea of common humanity,” he recalled. “Somebody was in need, and he wanted to help us.”
Hossain’s father worked three minimum-wage jobs until his death in 2004. The Muslim community in Norristown then came together to help out.
“They recognized there was a need,” he added. “The community is the reason I’m here.”
But it wasn’t easy. His first day of school in the United States, he was picked on and called “Saddam.”
“Even though Norristown is one of the most diverse places in all of Pennsylvania,” he noted, “I was probably one of the first Muslim kids to walk into the school with brown skin from Saudi Arabia.”
Last year, Hossain penned an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer encouraging people to “have a real conversation with a Muslim.”
After a white middle-aged man yelled at him from 40th and Market streets to “go back to your country,” Hossain felt obligated to try to make a difference.
He offered to chat with anyone over coffee — and received more than 300 responses (about 200 were positive). He’s since met with 48.
But Hossain doesn’t think he’s changed anyone’s minds. If people have a certain hatred toward a group of people, he can’t change that, he explained. But if they hate a group he’s affiliated with, he can try to make sure they are at least informed.
“We all have preconceived notions of what someone else is or does based on how they identify themselves,” he said. When he tells people he’s from Norristown, for instance, or a Muslim, there’s a “certain understanding” of his background, he noted.
But if he introduces himself as a Penn Law student, “there’s a very different way of how someone perceives me.”
“But at the end of the day, all of those identities are intertwined within one Akbar,” he said. “What I want to get across to the students … is that they too have an opportunity to fight against stereotypes.”