"How can someone tell me that this is America and I can't be Muslim here?"

Those are the words of undergraduate student Shahrin Azim. She is a 19-year-old neuroscience student who was one of eight people interviewed as part of an eye-opening photo series profiling Muslim American women ahead of the presidential election.

For Azim, learning about others being attacked for their beliefs is "excruciatingly painful," she said in an interview with the Turkish news site Anadolu Agency. And with hate crimes against Muslims on the rise, it's hard to see a silver lining.


"It's difficult to think about the things that are said to them ... that their people are terrorists and that they should go back to wherever they came from."

During this contentious election season it's easy for these individual voices to get lost in the static of scandals, leaks, and hateful rhetoric. But their perspectives shed a light on a topic that is rarely discussed.

Here are six of those voices talking about their experiences this election season:

1. Shabih Aftab, financial analyst for the Gap Inc.'s global online marketing team

Shabih Aftab photographed on Oct. 31, 2016. Photo by ​Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images​.

"As a hijabi woman, I am a prominent symbol of Islam and that makes people uncomfortable. Not only about me, but it makes them uncomfortable when I seek success. I try 10 times as hard for the same job than my non-Muslim counterparts work for. We need to accept that women, as it is, have unequal rights in the work place, but when you are a minority it's that much harder. With Islamophobia on the rise, I have to make myself stronger in my faith and steadfast in my morals. I cannot and will not change who I am to make others feel at ease and believe I am worthy of that job or that promotion. This is the same piece of advice I tell my younger sister. We are women who deserve a place at the table, not because we are Muslim, but because we are strong, confident, intelligent and conscious despite what Trump supporters want us to believe. We are told our hijabs hold us back and I firmly disagree. The hijab empowers me to be the best example I can be to show people that 'I am a force.'"

2. Sara Zayed, technology analyst on Wall Street

Sara Zayed photographed on October 28, 2016. Photo by ​Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images​.

"It's surreal that I'm regularly in the heart of New York during these tumultuous elections. As a Muslim woman, I've experienced more love than hatred this year — my non-Muslim friends have reinforced their respect and value for me and my identity, and I've never felt more propped up by people of different communities and backgrounds. However, that doesn't mean I don't experience fear. When New York was bombed last month and the bomber was revealed to be a Muslim man, I was terrified to go into the city, worried I may experience backlash as a visibly identifiable Muslim woman. So although I'm experiencing wonderful support, I'm also regularly on my guard and keep a look out for potential danger. I don't underestimate the fact that my hijab has now become a political statement. I firmly believe the best thing my Muslim sisters can do at this time is hold their heads high and continue to break barriers. That in itself is the greatest statement of strength we can offer the world."

3. Marwa Janini, immigration caseworker and instructor at City University of New York

Marwa Janini photographed on Oct. 29, 2016. Photo byMohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

"Growing up amidst the climate of Islamophobic rhetoric, I have faced many challenges that come with being a visible Muslim American woman. I have often had to defend my faith against unwarranted verbal attacks and misconceptions. These experiences were compounded with the paternalistic reality that exists in many Arab immigrant communities, and I am a living embodiment of a woman breaking the mold. While these experiences have had a role in shaping my identity as a Muslim American woman, I refuse to be confined by them. I choose to focus on the positive influence I can have as a successful Muslim American woman, breaking down barriers and proving that the narrative of oppression and voicelessness is baseless and untrue.

4. Mahroh Jahangiri, executive director at Know Your IX

Mahroh Jahangiri photographed on Oct. 25, 2016. Photo by ​Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images​.

"To be a Muslim woman doing anti-violence work in the United States right now is to really be filled with fury. On the one hand, there is a presidential candidate who has waged a campaign to silence women he’s sexually assaulted. As an advocate organizing against gender violence, I certainly welcome the ensuing outrage. It makes it harder to ignore the fact that gender violence is a very common problem. But, I find it hard not to still feel frustrated. I am frustrated that this candidate's comments (and the other candidate's policies) that have regularly hurt and killed so many people of color are not similarly sufficient to generate outrage. Yesterday, the bedroom of two Muslim girls at my little sister's university had 'terrorist' written on it. In the weeks prior, two friends were assaulted in anti-Muslim attacks. Where is mainstream outrage over stuff like this? ... This past week, my organization just published an 145-page Campus Organizing Toolkit on creating campaigns to fight violence. I am so excited to get this in the hands of young angry people. And I am so grateful to be surrounded by many angry women of color Muslim women, Native, Black, Latina women who are leading fights (against sexual assault, pipelines, against police & prisons) to end violence against people."

5. Nagla Bedir, social studies teacher

Nagla Bedir photographed on Oct. 29, 2016. Photo by ​Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images​.

"Although there has been a rise in hate speech and Islamophobia, I have been fortunate to work in a district filled with many supportive people. I have had to deal with dirty looks, and some negative comments from co-workers, and the overall ignorance of the majority of the people around me, but on the contrary, the majority of these ignorant people are very curious and willing to learn. … I think some people hear American Muslim and think that is a contradiction. … The ignorance that surrounds Muslims is very frustrating. People avoid coming near me, I get dirty looks and/or am stared at, and I’ve been called a terrorist, Taliban, and a rag-head. Islamophobia has been around since before 9/11 and it has increased and decreased throughout the years. Recently, it has become an even more vitriol disease plaguing our country. … From one extreme people telling me I shouldn’t wear hijab or follow Islam and then on the other end being told I’m too modern and don’t fit the mold of what a Muslim woman is supposed to be. … My family and friends have continuously pushed me to face adversities and succeed despite them. I am not afraid of failure and push myself to try to be the best at everything. What motivates me the most is my students. Their education is the number one priority in my life. So how am I successful woman despite all of these issues? The reason is them."

6. Shahrin Azim, undergraduate student in neuroscience

Shahrin Azim photographed on Oct. 31, 2016. Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

"As a Muslim woman, I can't help but think about all the young Muslims who are just starting to love their identity or recognize their roots, and how they are being bullied or beaten in school for following a faith that is so horribly misunderstood. It's difficult to think about the things that are said to them by their peers, teachers, and even other adults who they see every day, tell them that their people are terrorists and that they should go back to wherever they came from. People say, 'There is no room in this country for people like you! This is America!' Yes, it is America, a country founded on the values of religious freedom. The pilgrims escaped from England to come here and practice their faith. How can someone tell me that this is America and I can't be Muslim here. I wish that they would realize their hypocrisy. I wish that they could understand that I'm not a terrorist, nor am I associated with any of those groups. Islam is just another monotheistic religion that is very similar to Christianity and Judaism. It is not a faith that condones violence against innocent people, or oppresses women. My religion is part of who I am and I will not let anyone's hate strip me of my faith."

Now that the presidential election is here, these women are a powerful reminder of the many unheard voices.

It's important to have an open and honest discussion about what life in America is like for different people. In an election season like this, empathy — walking in someone else’s shoes — could be the most important tool we have.

Let your voice be heard and make sure to vote!

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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