A Muslim-American mother explains what it's like to talk to her kids about terrorism.

The other day, I was watching CNN when a picture of San Bernardino's female terrorist, Tashfeen Malik, flashed onto the screen.

My 6-year-old daughter immediately turned to me and exclaimed, "Mom, that bad girl is a Muslim!"

My heart stopped for a second. As a mother, I've tried shielding my children from news of ISIS and American terrorists — whether they shoot innocent people at an office party or a Planned Parenthood clinic. Isn't that a natural instinct for most parents, wanting to shield your young ones from life's ugly realities as much as possible?


Image via iStock.

Except there's only so much shielding you can do. Especially when you're a Muslim.

"Mom, that bad girl is a Muslim!" my daughter said. "Look, she's wearing a scarf on her head just like you do!" I'm not only a Muslim mother who wears a headscarf. I'm also a writer and public speaker, focusing on stories of Muslims and training law enforcement on cultural sensitivity. I often appear on radio and television to talk about the effects of these media stories on the average, law-abiding Muslim American. That means my 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son know a little too much about how ugly this world can be.

Image via iStock.

I want my children to feel safe and loved. But what do you tell your children when the news is full of people "of your tribe" doing something horrible and evil?

I've been digging into that question, searching for suggestions and insights from experts. And while I've found a lot of good advice for post-terrorism parenting making the rounds online, not all of it addresses the specific challenges my family, and so many others, are facing.

Here are some key pieces of advice most commonly shared by experts and how I've made them work for our family:

1. "Assure children that these attacks are rare and the chances of anything ever happening to them are next to nothing."

A friend recently told me that every time her high school son passes someone in the hallway, people yell, "Bomb!" Another friend told me her 7-year-old daughter was nicknamed "ISIS" by her classmates.

Even more than terrorist attacks, my children are scared about how others will view them because they look like some of the terrorists they're seeing on the news.

Image via iStock.

While President Obama has repeatedly cautioned us not to lump all Muslims into the same box, Muslims are still regularly on the receiving end of hate speech and threats.

Which is why we need to talk to our kids — all of them — about bullying.

In a world already hurting, we all need to work together to help Muslim children understand that they are not any less loved or valued because of their faith. (It's worth pointing out that many brown-skinned people like Sikhs and Hindus are mistaken for Muslim, too.)

Teachers, principals, and school administrators should do the same by reminding their staff and students that faith-based teasing is not acceptable.

Image by nick chapman/Flickr.

2. "Talk about how the child feels rather than giving information about the who, why, what, and where."

For my family, it's impossible to escape the "who." And it's (naturally) always followed by questions about why. The day after the San Bernardino attack, my son, listening to the news in the car on the way to school, asked me, "Mommy, if those people were Muslim, why did they kill someone? Don't they know Islam means peace?" These aren't easy questions, and I don't have all the answers.

But I take this opportunity to talk to my children about Islam and its inherently peaceful teachings.

We looked through the Quran and found the verse, "Whoever kills a soul … it is as if he has killed all mankind, and whoever saves a soul, it is as if he has saved all mankind" (5:32).

I show them all the commandments about being peaceful, kind, loving, and just. That's the reaffirmation of faith I and my family need in times like these.

Image by Tarang hirani/Flickr.

3. "Shut off the television and radio and spend time with the family."

I want to be able to shut it all off. Yet I need to stay connected — not just for work, but for my sense of my family's safety. Switching off the television means not knowing what presidential candidates are saying, how Muslims are responding, what the latest advisories by Muslim civil rights groups are, and so much more.

That's why I'm trying to focus on listening to unbiased news reports instead of talk shows full of hateful rhetoric when my kids are around.

After my son casually told his sister that the word Islamic is actually a code word for evil, I stopped listening to the radio in the car when I drop my kids off at school. I find websites like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and some NPR programs to be more balanced than the main cable news channels.

Ultimately, that's the best way I know to protect my children from the painful words others are using against their faith, and I'm hoping other parents do the same so that we don't promote intolerance in future generations.

Image via iStock.

4. "Remind children that many people in the government and the community are working hard to keep them safe."

While that's certainly true of terrorist attacks, it's harder to make the case for Muslims right now. Adults and children are being harassed in the street, spit on in buses, and so much more. My children can see what the American Muslim community is going through, and it's almost impossible to shield them from it.

Last week, the father of my daughter's friend was escorted off a plane for looking suspicious and then detained by the police for hours. His face on the news was recognizable and she cried, "Mom, why did the police catch Amna's dad?" It's so heartbreaking and frustrating to watch my children grow wary and afraid.

I told her that loving other people, taking care of them, and making sure we help them when they're in need is what makes a Muslim.

That's why it's so important to get involved in showcasing a positive side of Islam and Muslims.

Whether you're a Muslim or not, getting to know your Muslim neighbors, visiting Islamic organizations, and learning about the positive contributions Muslims make in their communities can change the narrative and counter stereotypes. Virtually every city with a Muslim presence has a charitable or social service arm.

This week, my kids and I are buying holiday gifts as part of a mosque project to give to sick children in our local cancer hospital. You can also contact your nearest charity or two of the largest national charitable organizations — Islamic Relief USA and ICNA Relief — for projects to help with.

Image via iStock.

At the end of the day, keeping communication open is key. Sometimes only an honest heart-to-heart talk with your child will do.

When my daughter was so upset about seeing a terrorist wearing the same head covering as her mother, I told her to remember there are bad people in the world, no matter their religion.

I told her that loving other people, taking care of them, and making sure we help them when they're in need is what makes a Muslim.

I told her we are in this world to be kind and good.

I coaxed her into a better mood by telling her stories of the Prophet Muhammad who gave up everything he had for others. I'm an author after all, and I know the power of storytelling.

My daughter was silent for a long time, which means she was thinking about what I said.

At her age, I know I'll have likely have to repeat the message many times. But at least she was thinking about it, and today, that's all I can pray for.

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Talking about politics at work can be a really touchy situation. It's good for people to be able to express themselves in the office. But it can lead to serious tension when people don't see eye-to-eye. It can be especially difficult when a company takes a hard line on a controversial issue that employees are forced to stand behind.

So Basecamp, a project management software company based in Chicago, has just decided to ban talking about politics at work altogether. It seems the company tried to foster an open atmosphere but it backfired.

"Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant," co-founder Jason Fried wrote in a post on the company website.

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via Pixabay

Talking about politics at work can be a really touchy situation. It's good for people to be able to express themselves in the office. But it can lead to serious tension when people don't see eye-to-eye. It can be especially difficult when a company takes a hard line on a controversial issue that employees are forced to stand behind.

So Basecamp, a project management software company based in Chicago, has just decided to ban talking about politics at work altogether. It seems the company tried to foster an open atmosphere but it backfired.

"Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant," co-founder Jason Fried wrote in a post on the company website.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."