Wearing homemade tie-dye tees and a rainbow of hijabs, the members of Girl Scout Troop 4162 decorate flower pots for Earth Day.
Zoya Hafeez, 11, paints the Pokemon logo on hers. Charizard is her fave. Ten-year-old Syeda Khadijah grabs a Girl Scout-green marker and etches out “Go Green.”
In the midst of their meeting, the sun sets. A call for prayer rings like a beautiful song on the intercom in the basement of the Islamic Center of Johnson County. The girls kick off their sneakers, covered in sparkles and pastels, and line up to pray for a few minutes.
As they bow and kneel, they pray for good grades and their families.
I pray for their lives.
I pray they never have to experience a hate crime or a travel ban or bullying over their hijabs or their faith.
This week, a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that hate crimes against Muslims rose 15 percent last year.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the travel ban, widely called the “Muslim Ban,” meant to keep out immigrants, refugees and visa holders from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen. Five of those seven countries are predominantly Muslim.
President Donald Trump, before ever taking office, slung around “Muslim” like a bad word, demonizing 3.45 million Americans and far more worldwide. And he keeps giving power to the Islamophobes like former Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, the CIA director on his way to becoming the next secretary of state. John Bolton, the president’s new national security adviser, was the head of an anti-Muslim think tank.
When the government spews hate toward Muslims, it empowers everyday bigots to do the same.
A week ago, three Kansas men were found guilty of a conspiracy to bomb a Garden City apartment complex where Somali immigrants lived. Last month, a Missouri man pleaded guilty to hate crimes for threatening to behead and slaughter Muslims worshipping at a Georgia mosque. Muslims in America are under attack.
But here, at a Scout meeting in south Overland Park, the girls are flourishing in their faith and sisterhood. Together, they are strong. And it’s deeper than selling cookies.
Zainab Attar, 9, almost whispers to me about not wearing her hijab to her public school.
“I like my hijab,” she tells me. “But one time when I wore my hijab to school people made fun of it.”
So she wears it to the mosque and when she prays, but very rarely in public. When I ask her what the kids at school said, she shuts down. She says she doesn’t remember, her eyes, big and brown and hurt with the memory she won’t share.
But things are getting better, thanks to Girl Scouts.
“I didn’t really have that much confidence in myself before. When I joined Girl Scouts I was really shy. I am also really shy right now,” she tells me. “But I talk more than I did before, here and in school. And I have more patience. Patience is important.”
Heba Aziz, 10, is the only Muslim girl in her school. There’s no outright hate, but there is confusion and sometimes fascination, she says. But at her Scout meetings?
“They just understand me,” she says.
For troop leader Saima Imtiaz, that’s the point. She started the Overland Park troop after years of taking her oldest daughter over to a Muslim troop in Olathe. When her younger daughter, Syeda Khadijah, was old enough to join, Saima realized the Muslim community had grown enough to fill another troop. Now she has 15 girls. They just conquered their first camping trip and sleepover.
It’s not about segregating, she says. Muslim girls join integrated troops all over the country. But a Muslim troop, she says, strengthens the girls so they can teach others about themselves and learn about others as well.
“We share the same values as all Girl Scouts troops,” Saima says. “But this is good for them, because they all know what the other one is going through, and if they have a problem we can work together to resolve things. They are gaining so much confidence.”
Her oldest daughter, Syeda Mahnoor, 16, has seen what the troop can do.
“We strive to improve ourselves, to work together and help people around us understand who we are. We are not different. We are not bad people,” she says. “People don’t know until you show them. A lot of people have never met a Muslim, and we are busting down stereotypes by going out in the community and talking to people. We are loving people, and we teach the girls to love themselves for who they are and love themselves, even when they are around people who are not like them, so they aren’t affected by hate.”
Her sister Syeda Khadijah is a budding Girl Scout leader. Her vest is running out of room for badges. Her favorites thus far: a Gaga Ball badge and Inspire a Girl.
“I take everyone in my troop as my sister,” she tells me, peering through her glasses with poise. “Our troop is a diverse group. I’m totally good with being myself. There are over six cultures just in this troop,” she says, stopping to count out Palestine, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Saudia Arabia, Somalia, Kenya, Russia, “and we can learn from each other.”
She has her Girl Scout goals set on raising money for outdoor benches to beautify the mosque and to invite the outside community in. She says freedom of religion makes America a better place.
“I want people to know about my faith and know that we are all the same from each corner, and we are all the same on the inside. There is nothing really different between us and them.”
As I leave the Islamic Center, she stops me to hand me her “Go Green” flower pot. She just put in some fresh soil and cute little white pansies.
The Supreme Court is taking on the travel ban this week. Early signs point to support of the xenophobic measure. This isn’t just about whom we let in this country. It affects how we treat the people living in it, born in it, just as American as anyone else.
So as I gaze at my new plant and think of Syeda Khadijah and her friends, I don’t just hope my new flowers grow. I hope inclusion in America blossoms. As-salamu alaykum. Peace be unto us all.