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Yvonne Abraham

At Excel Academy, a confrontation that never should have happened

Maybe, Zahra Aljiboury worried, it was her fault the woman walked into her school and went off on a bigoted rant — and recorded it, to maximize the hurt.

The freshman at Excel Academy High School had led the effort to start the Arab Student Union. Aljiboury, 15, had designed the display in the lobby of the East Boston charter school for Arab Heritage Month, featuring famous Arab-Americans, and some history. It was her work that caught the neighborhood woman’s eye — and sparked her outrage — as she was walking past the school one day in April.

“I’m a concerned grandparent,” the woman told a staffer as she entered the school, her phone camera rolling. “I pay taxes.” She was disgusted by what she was seeing (“We’re in America, man. I don’t like this [expletive]”), offended by the notion that Arabs and Muslims made contributions to philosophy and mathematics (“This is your Common Core, people”), and said she was “just getting sick to my stomach right now, being here.”

She posted the video on Facebook, where she called on Americans to expose this “colonization of our country.” To say it got some attention is to understate.


It was a bruising blow for a school that prides itself on welcoming everyone: It is notably diverse, its students comfortable with their differences, and mostly eager to understand them. Other months are set aside to celebrate Black history, Latinx heritage, Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, Women’s history, LGBTQ+ pride, and mental health awareness. April reflected the culture of the school’s small group of kids from Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria.

The woman who shot the video “ruptured our bubble a little bit,” said Yinnette Sano, the school’s director of diversity. “We try to be a space where people feel included and their voices are celebrated, and to have her come into our space and use [that] language felt hard and real in ways we hadn’t felt before.”


It was especially hard for Aljiboury. The student had walked behind the woman as she was recording, and “thought it was something positive,” she recalled this week.

“I am the one who designed the wall and pushed for this,” Aljiboury said. “If it wasn’t for me, that woman would never have come into the school.”

But she’s painfully familiar with this particular brand of bigotry. Born here, to a refugee father and a mother both born in Iraq, the Chelsea teen discovered shamefully early in life that simply wearing a hijab is enough to prompt hostility, even in a city as diverse as hers. That is especially so now, with a president who trucks in open Islamophobia.

“I get weird stares and disgusted looks,” the freshman said. A few years ago, she was minding her own business at a bus stop when a teenager accosted her, telling her he couldn’t wait for Donald Trump to win so she’d have to leave the country.

“I just stood there,” she recalled. “I was silenced.”

Maybe the woman wouldn’t have come into the school if she hadn’t seen the display, but she still would have been bigoted, Aljiboury allowed. She sure would. In addition to the Excel video, the woman posted another, of a friend’s unhinged, anti-Islam rant at a GOP meeting in Revere. It’s not as if intolerance like this needs much cause — or even a passing acquaintance with reality.


“We can’t change the way they think,” Aljiboury said. “When it comes down to it, that’s just the way they were raised.”

She couldn’t be angry. Instead, in early May, on the first full day of Ramadan, Aljiboury got up at a schoolwide meeting to urge her community to meet hate with sympathy and understanding.

“I wanted to highlight the fact that in this month, we focus on forgiveness, and to say I forgive the woman for what she did,” she recalled. “Instead of fueling the fire and being angry, we should just move on.”

Just to remind you, this kid is 15. That woman who walked into Excel Academy with her camera is worried this country is being taken over by Arab-Americans like Aljiboury?

We should be so lucky.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.