How I responded when my Muslim students asked, ‘Why does he hate us?’

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Getting out of your comfort zone can be an eye-opening experience.

“Ms. Kayla, why does he hate us?”

All photos courtesy of the author.

That’s one of the many questions I was bombarded with by my Indonesian high school students the day after President Donald Trump was elected. I’d spent the morning talking and crying with my sister, a New York transplant from Texas, about Trumpism, the state of America, and what I was supposed to say to a classroom full of Muslim teenagers.

“Sometimes, people hate what they don’t understand,” I responded shakily.

I chose to teach in Indonesia because I felt it imperative to spend a year in a country completely different from the Western world I’d inhabited for 24 years. I didn’t know that when it would be time for me to leave, the home I was returning to would also look and feel drastically different.

I didn’t know how much living in Indonesia would prepare me to go back and fight for change.

The population in Indonesia is about 88.1% Muslim, making it the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Islamic teachings are a part of most schools, and the intersections of culture and religion cross one another in Indonesian communities.  

Instead of quivering down and trying to save face, I’ve been honest with my students about the state of Islam in America and how people are treated in different areas. In turn, my students have been honest with me. Their candidness has made way for a deeper understanding of Islam and a desire to help Americans understand the importance of inclusion for all religions.

My students have discussed what being a Muslim means and its importance to them. They’ve discussed how America — a country many of them perceive to be amazing — is a place they assumed everyone was welcome. Until this year.

That’s what America is supposed to be. That’s what we used to be. That’s what we should be.

“Ms. Kayla, will we ever be able to come visit you in America?”  

Religion is often a part of coursework and Indonesian school days.

Every week, I have the unique opportunity of not only teaching these students English, but learning about and understanding Islam from a perspective outside of America. While I knew about Islam, I’d never been around Muslim people outside of a few interactions with university colleagues and teachers. In Indonesia, I’m immersed in a culture that integrates Muslim identity into daily life. I’ve learned more about the history of Islam, how it ended up in Indonesia, and the role it plays in government and society.

In engaging with a religion and culture that is unlike mine, I’ve been able to see more of the complexities of our world, which has led to more understanding and even more questions.

I’ve been reminded of the importance of faith in communities across the globe. How the ability to express that faith free of hatred and judgement is a human right that should be unconditionally upheld in a nation that claims to be free for all.

Seeing my students learn and excel has only enhanced my desire to see the beauty and work of immigrants across America. Cultural exchange is one of the best ways to gain understanding. To block people from entering our nation because of religion or race is not only morally wrong — it puts our nation at the disadvantage of missing out on learning from different points of view.

“Ms. Kayla, what will you do when you go home?”  

Over the past few months, protesters have organized across the country to demand change and acceptance, and I’ve learned just how much our country must grow and learn to unite.  

This is the moment when we get to decide our role in history, when empathy must morph into advocacy and where actions must speak louder than words. Our diverse world deserves it.


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