Language arts teacher Fatema Sumrein delivered a TED Talk this summer at a state conference on equity in education. She focused on her personal experience of isolation and discrimination as a young Muslim girl after 9/11.
By Gary Miller
Fatema Sumrein was an all-American girl.
She grew up in Linden, taking part in sports and school activities. She was the daughter of a National Guard sergeant and was taught by her parents to value education, her religion and her heritage.
But when the world was turned upside down by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, everything changed for 10-year-old Fatema. She was suddenly treated as an outsider because she had been born to Palestinian parents and wore a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.
“One student came up to me and said,” Sumrein recounted, banging her hand on the desk, “ ‘You can’t sit here! This is the American table!’ ” As young and naïve as I was, I giggled and said, ‘Good thing I’m American.’”
But more students joined in. “ ‘Your uncle is the reason my uncle has to go to war. Your people are the reason we have problems here.’ As a 10-year-old, I couldn’t do anything. I was defeated. I put my head in my hands and I cried.”
But there are heroes in this story: her principal and a teacher. They reached out to her to give her support and encouragement, and to let her know that it was OK to be who she was.
Now, almost 19 years later, Sumrein is a language arts teacher at McManus Middle School and she tries to use those educators as an example of how to reach out to students in her classroom, in her building, and throughout the district.
She shared her childhood story in a TED Talk this summer at a New Jersey Department of Education conference on equity in education, the idea that every student should be given an equal chance at success regardless of their background.
TED Talks are short, influential speeches given at conferences nationwide from expert speakers on education, business, science, tech and creativity. The TED organization, a non-profit that started in 1984, teamed up with the Department of Education to help selected educators share their stories.
“We were very proud to have Ms. Sumrein representing Linden at the Department of Education conference and delivering such a powerful message,” said Acting Superintendent Denise Cleary. “We celebrate our diversity throughout Linden Public Schools, and this statewide push for equity is the natural next step. Ms. Sumrein’s TED talk was a perfect example of how we seek to give every child a chance to thrive and succeed.”
Sumrein, who is starting her second year at McManus after teaching in Hillside, said she got involved when she saw a link on Twitter asking for anyone who had a story to share to apply. She didn’t realize the program was affiliated with TED until she was one of 19 people chosen to work with TED representatives to refine and sharpen her story to make it the best presentation possible.
She was then one of eight people selected from around New Jersey to speak at the conference. She and the other New Jersey speakers are now in the running to speak at the national TED Ed conference.
“It was a really good experience,” Sumrein said. “It shows that teachers are more than just teachers in the classroom. We’re changing things.”
Sumrein was excited for the opportunity to get involved with TED, but was nervous about sharing such a personal story.
“That was something that was really hard,” she said. “The first two times I presented my talk, I cried. It’s emotional. I’m always a funny, happy-go-lucky type of person, so for me to show my vulnerability was a big thing for me.
“My biggest fear is letting those children down, honestly,” she said. “I think this is a good thing because I want the kids who don’t have someone to act as a voice for them to see that there is hope for them. I definitely feel that I want to be their inspiration, and I’m hoping that I can be. I’ll be humbled if I am.”
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When Sumrein was 10 years old and feeling isolated because of who she was, it was School No. 1 Principal Diana Braisted who reached out to her to offer a hand of friendship.
“She let me cry and let my frustrations out, because I didn’t know why I was being targeted,” Sumrein said in her TED Talk. “She told me, ‘Some people judge your book by its cover. But at times, I’m pretty sure you’re going to let them see you shine.’
“She did not stop there. She came up to me every single day to ask how I was doing. She saw me, she heard me, and she would ask me, ‘How is your family back in Palestine? How is your mother? How is everything going with your transition here? Did you try out for the dance ensemble?’
“What she saw in me gave me life. It gave me back a little bit of peace that I once had. And my childhood started to come back into me.”
Still, she and friends who were also Muslim heard comments about their background throughout their school years.
“We never talked about it. We all went through that trauma, but we all acted tough and joked around about it,” Sumrein said. “People would call us terrorists, and we would laugh. But we never said, ‘That’s not right!’
“I think because of the conversation that was happening in our society at that time, we heard, ‘Oh, just get over it. How can you blame people?’ But wait, we were here with you!”
When she was 14, Sumrein traveled with her family to Palestine for a wedding. But because of the turmoil and political tensions of the time, her family was detained on the border for two weeks. When she returned to Linden, the taunts and questions focused on her family’s delay: So how’s your uncle? Did you find the caves? Do you even have hair underneath there? So where are you really from?
That was when another educator stepped to her defense: Kevin LaMastra, who was a French and ESL teacher at Soehl Middle School who created a Friends Beyond Borders project following 9/11. Based on her contributions to the club, Sumrein was chosen to go to a youth summit at the United Nations, and addressed Nane Annan, first lady of the U.N. at that time, and the audience with a speech on the issues that she was passionate about.
“She really came out of her shell,” said LaMastra, who is now district supervisor of world languages and ESL. “It was clear from that day forward, that Fatema would become a passionate teacher who would somehow make a difference in the lives of her students and in the world at large.”
He also encouraged her to share her story with her classmates.
“He told me, ‘Something you should think about is that your classmates aren’t being mean, but they’re ill-informed,’” Sumrein said.
LaMastra offered to help her write an article for the school newspaper to let people know about her religion, her family’s background, and her hijab.
“What happened that day is the article created sympathetic students,” Sumrein said in her TED Talk. “Classmates were asking me how I was, how I was feeling, if it was traumatic to have a gun pointed at my face, and whether I needed a hug. Teachers were looking at me with a softer lens.”
She credits LaMastra for a huge change in her life.
“He let me know that I didn’t have to hide who I was anymore,” Sumrein said. “Or make a joke, like, ‘Look how American I am,’ because he said, ‘You ARE American. Just be yourself.’ That to me just changed everything. It changed the game. He made me feel like it was OK for me to be Palestinian and Muslim, and be American as well.”
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In addition to the TED Talk, Sumrein will be working with the New Jersey Department of Education this year to create standards for equity in the classroom and with Union County College to set up a program on equity. She was also selected as a “Face of the NEA” and will appear in promotional materials for the National Education Association.
“I think this is going to be an exciting year. Equity is becoming a serious situation,” she said. “We always talk about it, but we need to take that next step. This is going to show a lot of teachers that we do have an opportunity to change things. We shouldn’t see ourselves as just educators within the classroom, but beyond that. Teaching beyond the borders.
“The more you give to these kids, the more they will give you back.”