Profile "In the Field"

“We Bring Something Beautiful to the Table”: A Muslim Coloradan’s Reflections

“I don’t hide who I am to this day. Even in today’s current environment, I don’t hide who I am. I try to always show a peaceful and accepting approach with that ignorance that comes back to me. I don’t fight it back, I prefer to be patient and be peaceful, that helps with these situations over time.” Najwa Khalaf, an Aurora Muslim, spoke those words to me during an interview I conducted with her. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, adult Muslims made up less than 1% of the population of Colorado in 2019. Nonetheless, Muslim Coloradans have a rich history in the Centennial State. Najwa’s story is one such example of the growing Islamic community throughout the Denver-metro area.

Najwa is a first-generation Palestinian American who was born in Canada in 1969. Her parents were native Palestinians of the West Bank and they immigrated from their home in the wake of the 1967 war between Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Israel won the war and occupied all Palestinian territory including the West Bank. Najwa’s mother was deported out of the occupied West Bank to Kuwait where she met Najwa’s father, who had been working in Jordan at the time after finishing school in Europe. Her parents married shortly after they were introduced to each other and they immigrated to Canada in 1968. Najwa and her family moved to Aurora in 1972 where she remains to this day. She currently works for a hospital on the Anschutz campus who oversees the patient navigators.

I met with Najwa in the fall of 2018 to discuss her experiences as an American Muslim. The subject of the interview concerned instances of Islamophobia that Najwa has experienced in the United States. Najwa said that Islamophobia impacts her life every time there is a terrorist attack in the United States. She added that every time there is a terrorist attack anywhere in the world, the Islamic community hopes that the perpetrator wasn’t a Muslim due to the backlash practitioners of the faith will inevitably experience.

The tragedy of the 9/11 attacks set forth an unprecedented level of Islamophobia in American society. Najwa remembers where she was that tragic day and she discussed that memory in detail. When she reported for work at her former job the morning of 9/11, she was as yet unaware of the severity of the attacks until she received a phone call from one of her co-workers from another department, who told her, “Najwa, you’re one of us. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not one of us.” But Najwa continued by saying that another of her coworkers expressed Islamophobic remarks to her that same day. The coworker asked Najwa, “Do you think they’re going to do to you what they did…to the Japanese?” The coworker was clearly referring to the internment of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Najwa felt both confused and dismayed by her coworker’s question, which Najwa, says, was asked out of suspicion rather than concern.

The Islamophobia that Najwa experienced on 9/11 continued in the months immediately following the attacks. At that former job, she was a manager for an employment program and her responsibilities consisted of overseeing entering client data into the state a computer system. Two of her coworkers sabotaged the data Najwa entered into the system in an attempt to get her fired. Fortunately, Najwa was able to prove her innocence, and she is convinced that the actions of the two employees were racially and religiously charged. But despite her coworkers’ prejudice, Najwa insisted that the two women not be fired since she believed it to be against her morals and upbringing.

Najwa’s family also experienced Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11. Her daughter was five years old at the time of the attacks, and she was assaulted by one of her classmates at school. After picking her up from school one day, Najwa found a bruise on her daughter in the shape of a footprint. Her daughter explained that a classmate had kicked her and called her “bin Laden’s daughter.” The school superintendent wanted to expel the student, but Najwa insisted that the child be allowed to stay in school. Najwa justified her decision by telling the superintendent, “She’s five years old. She doesn’t know any better. She learned this from someone else.”

I concluded my interview with Najwa by asking about her beliefs on confronting Islamophobia in today’s society. She stated, “I try to always show I’m very patient with that ignorance that comes back at me. I don’t fight back anymore.” Najwa continued by discussing how she wants non-Muslims to perceive her. “I am the average Muslim woman. This is what she looks like. She’s a productive member of society. She’s highly educated. She carries various positions within the community. She’s very giving. She’s very honest. She pays her taxes…She’s a good mom. She’s a great neighbor. I want people to live next to me because I’m a Muslim. I want people to work with me because of my heritage and my culture…because I think we [Muslims] bring something beautiful to the table like everyone else does. It’s not that I’m better than anyone else. I just think that my piece is a beautiful part of the puzzle.”

Najwa Khalaf’s story reflects the prejudice that thousands of American Muslims face on a daily basis. But what her story also highlights is the perseverance and patience that Muslims practice in the face of discrimination and ignorance. Najwa is a perfect example of why the stereotypes of Muslims in modern American society are false.