As Islamophobia spreads fear and distrust in many parts of the country, 27 American Muslim youths, ages 12 to 18, gathered at the Islamic Society of Chester County in West Chester to learn how to counteract bullying and how to correct misconceptions about their faith.
The Sunday workshops for youths and their parents were conducted by the California-based Islamic Networks Group (ING), which teaches answers to basic questions about Islam that can be used to calm irrational fears.
In one role-playing scenario, a group of students was waiting at a bus stop when a boy tried to pull off a girl's hijab, the head scarf worn by Muslim women for a variety of spiritual and cultural reasons.
Ishaq Pathan, the ING youth coordinator who ran the workshop, asked what the onlookers would do to stop the boy.
Maizah Ali, 12, from West Chester said, "I would shout, 'Hey! Stop! That's not nice!' Pathan said that could be effective because it might startle the aggressor into realizing how hurtful his behavior was.
The role-playing struck close to home for Ali, who wears her pink hijab to school. "One day, a student said to me, 'No hats in school' and shoved past me," she said. "I told my parents. They said if it happens again, I should tell the principal. But it never happened again."
Another exercise began when a non-Muslim student asked a Muslim student, "Hey, are you planning to bomb the school?" and the Muslim student wisecracked, "Yeah, got my pressure cooker ready to go."
"That's not cool," Pathan told the teens, because a passive, jokey answer doesn't correct a misconception about Muslims, and because people might take the joke seriously.
"Almost every student has only two or three Muslims in his or her grade," Pathan said, so each one may be put in situations where he or she represents the sole Muslim response to questions such as, "What do you think about ISIS? Are you forced to wear a hijab? Why are you fasting?"
The workshops, Pathan said, make them realize that "they are not alone. There is a group of Muslims here. By preparing them to respond to the questions, we help give them a voice, and that makes them feel empowered."
Salim Bootwala, executive secretary of the mosque who supervises its youth group, said he believes relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in West Chester, Downingtown, and Exton are friendly because the Islamic Society of Chester County has been reaching out for 22 years to other faiths and other ethnic groups.
One Saturday each month, the mosque's teens, including Bootwala's sons Ayman, 15, and Faraz, 13, serve food that Muslim families cook for homeless people housed and fed at Safe Harbor of Chester County in West Chester. They also fill backpacks with clothing and supplies for homeless and low-income children at Cradles to Crayons in Norristown.
Ibraheem Qureshi, 13, from West Chester, said the mosque, working with a local church and a synagogue, collected 100 bags of clothing and shoes for the Narenj Tree Foundation in Norristown, which ships the humanitarian aid to victims of the war in Syria and for refugees in Lebanon. "We helped fill six or seven minivans last week," Qureshi said proudly.
Sakina Farooq, 13, from West Chester, said the youth group also volunteers at Islamic Relief USA's Day of Dignity, distributing food and clothing to impoverished, homeless people in Philadelphia.