Muslims under the spotlight after 9/11
On September 11, 2001, Drost Kokoye was 10 years old and living in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee.
Like most other girls her age back then, she didn’t immediately understand the ramifications of 9/11. And like any other kid, she had more pressing concerns: She simply wanted to go to the Tennessee State Fair, one of her favorite things to do.
“The Ferris wheel, the bumper cars, the cotton candy...I love the state fair, it’s one of the ultimate days out,” Kokoye told me, reflecting back to her youth.
But the Tennessee state fair falls in early September every year. In 2001 when Kokoye asked her father if they could go, the response was Kokoye’s first reality of the facts that would later shape her teenage years.
“My dad said, ‘No. we’re not going. We just can’t go this year.’…That was the first time I noticed, ‘OK, well, something happened where we can’t even go outside to go to the state fair.”
She didn't know it at the time, but Kokoye's father didn't want to expose the family to the possible danger of a backlash against Muslims at the fair in the days after 9/11.
The Kokoyes are practicing Muslims from the Kurdish region of Iraq. They were forced to flee their homeland in 1997 (when Kokoye was five years old) in fear of the Saddam Hussein regime. They are from the town of Halabja, where more than 5,000 Kurds were gassed to death by an attack orchestrated by Hussein’s regime to put down uprisings. (Click here to watch a 2007 Al Jazeera English video report from Halabja, on the eve of the execution of the man in the Hussain regime said responsible for the attack).
A family photo just a couple years after the Kokoye family moved to America as refugees [Photo: Reproduction by Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]
Still living in a quiet suburb of Nashville, they are proud American citizens living a very Tennessee life. Kokoye’s dad is an assistant professor at a major local university, her mom stays home, and her siblings also study and run the family used car business.
But for Kokoye, her entire teenage years – that critical time when kids are trying to define their personality and untangle the early stages of adulthood - were defined by being Muslim in the United States.
At first it was hard, with some kids calling her a terrorist.
“I was in sixth grade back then, I didn’t even know what a terrorist was,” Kokoye, now 20, told me recently in Murfreesboro, TN where she now attends Middle Tennessee State University.
“In elementary school back then I had my scarf pulled off of me and I went home with my scarf ripped one day, but I still had it on my head,” she said. “Some kids spit at me, threw rocks at me, and fought me for no apparent reason.”
Kokoye quickly learned to deal with it, and the threats subsided a bit as months turned to years after 9/11.
But because of her religion, she says, 9/11 thrust upon her teenage years an opportunity to explain misconceptions of the Muslim faith to others, but also, a chance for her to gain a better understanding of other people.
“As a high school student, most kids haven’t even figured out what religion they want to take, let alone stand up and defend one,” Kokoye said. “And so when people would come to me and question my beliefs and stances, and ask why am I so dedicated to the scarf, it made me think about what is driving me and it pushed me to better understand my religion so I when I got those questions I wouldn’t be mad - but be able to educate people. I saw it as an opportunity to Muslims in America to show, ‘Ok, the spotlight is on us, now is our chance to show what our religion really is about.’”
Kokoye today speaking to Gabriel Elizondo about what it was like growing up a Muslim teenager in Ameirca after 9/11 [Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]
But Kokoye also readily admits that 9/11 has forced her to open her eyes to other viewpoints and people, just as much as anything else.
“Now, I don’t just take things for what they are,” she said. “If someone comes to me mad (about my religion) or whatever, I say, ‘OK, you have had a bad experience, I need to understand that.’ It has given me a reason to get to know people better and take other peoples’ opinions into consideration, which otherwise I don’t think I would have done. I would have been a lot more concerned with myself and my own independence if it were not for 9/11.”
“9/11 was an attack on America: Christian Americans, Muslim Americas, Jewish Americans, and atheist Americans, everyone…” she said.
Kokoye says she still gets people who come up to her and apologise for the way a minority of her fellow citizens treated her in the aftermath of 9/11.
She says her response is usually the same: “I tell people, I appreciate your apology, and I am also sorry for what happened on 9/11.”
After that encounter the result, too is the same, she says: “And that turns into a friendship right then and there.”
As for the Tennessee state fair? These days if she doesn’t attend it’s no longer because of any fear of violence because of her faith; those days are long gone, she says.
Now, if she misses it, it’s just because of her heavy school and work schedule.
But she still smiles broadly when talking about the Ferris wheel and cotton candy, and loves the fair experience just as much as she did 10 years ago.
Perhaps proving some things in America never change, regardless of faith.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel