By Janice Freij, Curator of Education at the AANM 

Although I grew up in a predominately homogenous suburb where most of my friends were non-Arab, I rarely felt that I was "different". Sure I was darker than most of the students in school, and brought foods to the lunchroom that often triggered disgusted looks and whispers, but otherwise, I felt like a normal kid. It wasn't until ninth grade that I discovered how different I really was. Let me rephrase that. Ninth grade was when I realized how different I really was in the eyes of other students.

Janice Freij, Curator of Education

The year was 1991, and the Gulf War was on the minds of most Americans. Because there was a lot I didn't understand about the war, I was excited when my Cultural Geography teacher announced that we would spend a unit learning about the Middle East. I also remember feeling anxious to learn more about the part of the world my parents came from. After giving a brief overview of what we would be learning in the upcoming weeks, my teacher asked us to take out a piece of paper. "Alright, class. I'm going to give you a few minutes to write down any stereotypes you may have about people from the Middle East." Knowing that many of these students had little or no exposure to any Arabs or other people from that region, I was curious about what they would write. My curiosity was interrupted by an abrupt statement from one of my classmates. "They smell!" The other students not only laughed at the comment, but added their own insights. "Ay-rabs are so rude!" "They're so mean to their wives!" "They wear rags on their heads!" Before I knew it, most of my "peers" engaged in conversations about Arabs' noses, their unwillingness to hire any non-Arab, their attire, their love of violence, and more.

I looked around the classroom in astonishment. Hundreds of thoughts flooded my naïve mind: "Do they not realize I'm Arab? Maybe they do, but they don't care. Or maybe they think I'm just different than the other Arabs. Why isn't my teacher stopping them from saying such horrible things?" The question that would not leave my mind was this. 'Why do they hate me and my people so much?" Being so overwhelmed by what I was experiencing, I left the classroom and released all of my confused emotions in the form of tears. And lots of them. In fact, I cried in the girl's bathroom the rest of the class period.

I learned a lot that day. For one, despite what I had previously assumed, I was taught that I was not viewed as a "normal" teenaged kid in white suburbia. I also was faced with the sad reality that many people's opinions about Arabs and Arab Americans are shaped by the skewed images that flood our TV and movie screens. The most important lesson I learned that day was this: Crying in the girls' bathroom every time I heard a negative stereotype about my people wasn't going to solve anything. From that time on, I did everything I could to learn about my culture and thus, relay information about my rich heritage to anybody that would be willing to listen.

Years after graduating from high school, a teacher from my high school invited me to give a presentation on Arab culture. As I stood amidst the students at the conclusion of the lecture, I made eye contact with the only Arab student in the room. For the 15 seconds we looked at each other, we had a powerful non-verbal conversation. "Thank you," his eyes said to mine. My eyes replied, "Things will get better."