For some Fairfield County students, the Israel-Hamas War isn’t a teachable moment
Sadeel Youssef, 14, doesn't think she’s oversharing when she talks to her classmates at Trumbull High School about what’s going on in Gaza.
But one of them did, she said.
Youssef is Palestinian and recalled the student saying, "we're in America, she shouldn't be talking about her home country. She shouldn't be trauma dumping her home country’s situation.”
Youssef said this response made her feel unheard and unwelcomed at school.
Other students in Fairfield County expressed similar feelings resulting from clumsy attempts at addressing the conflict in a school setting.
According to Ingi Soliman, a child psychologist in Westport, much of this is rooted in long-running challenges addressing diversity within the school systems throughout Fairfield County and a decades long conflict between Israel and Palestine in a safe setting.
Youssef said that wasn’t the only incident that happened. She said another student minimized Palestinian grievances over the long-running conflict, which intensified in 1948 after the creation of the state of Israel, itself the result of Jews wishing to escape persecution.
It's not just her fellow students who are making her feel unwelcomed, Youssef said. She said the principal made an announcement supporting Israel after Hamas, a militant group which controls large stretches of Gaza, killed at least 1,400 Israelis in a series of attacks.
“Hearing that made me upset like, why are you siding just with one country,” she said.
Trumbull Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment.
Youssef spoke about the long-running conflict, saying it didn’t start on Oct. 7, but has roots that extend much deeper than the current war between Israel and Hamas.
Youssef along with other students complained to the principal who made a follow-up announcement about Gaza, which she said, felt tacked on.
According to Soliman, that's not surprising. She said Fairfield County schools still struggle to understand bicultural students.
“The thing that a lot of people didn't realize at first when they were wanting to denounce the terrorist attack, which they should, was this idea of supporting Israel, making it feel quite divisive and making it feel like they're therefore anti-Palestinian,” Soliman said.
Soliman pointed out that schools can cause harm when they issue statements of support for just one group, omitting another group in which many students may belong.
Soliman said many students throughout Connecticut aren’t just Palestinian, but Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, all of which have fought in wars and conflicts against Israel since the 1940s. Many of their families personally experienced political and social strife.
Statements like the one Youssef said were issued, can "otherize" Muslim students, according to Soliman, who has said she’s seen an uptick in calls from parents since the attacks.
“When something like this happens … they could end up feeling like, they’re either against Hamas, or they're seen as terrorists, essentially. And so the nuances behind it are often lost,” she said.
Silence, according to other students, can be just as damaging.
Sham Alhomsi, 17, goes to Fairfield Warde High School, and said the school superintendent issued a statement expressing support for Israel, which upset her due to feeling it sided with Israelis over Palestinians. She tried to call him, but wasn’t successful.
She emailed him instead.
“And obviously, I got no reply back,” Alhomsi said.
Fairfield Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment.
Soliman said their experiences can also be viewed through social hierarchies.
Many Muslim families are immigrants, but many are also decidedly middle class. Yet many feel unheard by their school systems owing to a lack of cultural understanding, referring to recent local controversies over Ramadan.
That can also result in a teen feeling pushback not only from a person, but from a school status quo that already made them feel unwelcome in the first place, according to her. So when public schools issue statements in response to a current event, it can seem like just one more act that reinforces the idea that their feelings don’t matter.
“And sometimes what happens is kids can actually feel gas lit because they're put in a position where they feel something is true,” Soliman said.
Youssef spoke about being bullied in middle school, as students hurled slurs at her due to her Muslim faith.
“While people were walking out of the lunch room, they'd be like, 'Oh, why are they checking their bag? There's probably a bomb in there,'" Youssef said. “She's a terrorist.”
Eventually the school system did issue another statement expressing concerns for Muslim students. But according to Soliman, who is also a member of a DEI committee at a school in Westport, schools are more concerned with appearances.
“Places like Fairfield County, they really care about PR essentially, and so if they sort of say the wrong thing and then people protest loudly enough, it becomes really difficult for them and they're very averse to that,” Soliman said.
She said she’s known of Muslim parents who have pulled their children out of the schools as a result of feeling unwelcome.
If the schools are mishandling the situation, Soliman said the only thing that can be done is simply to emphasize shared humanity between the student groups.
While Fairfield and Trumbull Public Schools did not respond, the school districts in Stamford and Norwalk did. Stamford Public Schools Superintendent Tamu Lucero said the district supports all students.
“Our students represent every region of the globe, and I try to emphasize that we must respect and care for everyone and make sure all children feel emotionally and physically safe and secure,” Lucero said. “Bullying and hate speech – including antisemitic or Islamophobic remarks – are not tolerated in Stamford Public Schools.”
Norwalk Public Schools issued a statement saying it condemns the terrorist attacks while also wishing for the safety of all children in the region.
While some children are criticizing their schools, one parent said she’s using her own experiences with Islamophobia to educate her daughter.
One mother, Sherien Moussa, said her daughter’s experiences reminded her of when she was a teen in Westport in the aftermath of 9/11. She vividly recalled how her fellow students shoved her into lockers, called her racial slurs, and shunned her. She said she sat alone at a cafeteria table for a few months.
But she’s teaching her daughter to speak up, relying on her faith.
“We believe in a higher power which is Allah; he's with us through all of this,” Moussa said. “We do not care, we do not fear anyone but him.”