Jeneé Osterheldt

Ahmed Mohamed’s clock, Olathe teen’s bullying show it’s time for change

Ahmed Mohamed
Ahmed Mohamed The Associated Press

Ahmed Mohamed was arrested Monday for simply being Muslim, making an awesome clock and showing his misguided, paranoid teacher at MacArthur High School in Texas.

That same day Malik Mansi stayed home from Olathe East High School. Last week, on the 14th anniversary of 9/11 , classmates used Snapchat and group messages as humiliating, hateful weapons, insinuating Malik was a terrorist, the nephew of Osama bin Laden.

It started earlier that week when someone he thought was his friend called 9/11 National Malik Day. Malik asked him to stop. The boy said no. Another message warned him not to come to school that Friday.

“I woke up the next morning and there were more messages, pictures and videos,” the 16-year-old told me Thursday night. “They said, ‘Tell your uncles to stop terrorizing us,’ and someone took a picture of me at lunch and customized it into a Subway ad. It said, ‘Fly on in for this deal.’ 

He’s emotionally exhausted.

“My friends were making fun of me,” he said. “I wanted to leave. I was pretty upset and didn’t do anything for the rest of the day. During sixth hour, my teacher took me to the principal to show the pictures. People started calling me a snitch.”

He went home early. But the insults continued that night at the high school football game and at the Saturday’s Old Settlers parade, where someone told him, “It wasn’t your fault what happened 14 years ago. It was your uncle’s fault.”

“I was ticked off in that moment,” he said. “I felt betrayed and it really hurt my feelings. I didn’t want to go to school on Monday.” He stayed home while school administrators investigated.

And on that day, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed would leave his Texas school in handcuffs and soon become a hashtag phenomenon: #IStandWithAhmed.

“I felt bad for the kid,” Malik said of Ahmed. “Because he is a Muslim they think there is a bomb in his clock. Police handcuffed him. Wow. If that was me I would have started crying. I felt so bad for for him.”

Since then, Ahmed has been invited to the White House and Facebook headquarters and gotten shout-outs from MIT and NASA. It’s reminiscent of Kiera Wilmot, who was offered a trip to NASA Space Camp when her science experiment got her arrested two years ago.

These are wonderful opportunities, and it’s lovely to watch the way we come together and stand up to bullies and injustice. But we cannot rest on these grand gestures. They are fancy Band-Aids for a festering infection. You see, you can stand with Ahmed. But it doesn’t stop with Ahmed.

Islamophobia and racial profiling just keep on ticking when we don’t go deeper and educate ourselves and raise awareness. Look at “Obama a Muslim” that started trending Thursday on Twitter. Pundits and bigots use the word Muslim like an insult. The bullying and accepted anti-Muslim attitude are growing.

There are so many untold stories of bullying that get lost in the social media shuffle as we look for the next hashtag activist movement — kids like Malik that don’t make national headlines.

“This behavior clearly does not meet our expectations and is in violation of our district’s Code of Student Conduct,” the Olathe school district said in a statement. “We spend much time, in a variety of curriculums, activities and presentations working with all of our students on showing kindness and compassion to all.”

I’m happy the school took action. We need more from society as a whole.

“What happened to Ahmed and Malik is a symptom of a bigger problem,” said Moussa Elbayoumy, board chairman of the Council on American Islamic Relations’ Kansas chapter.

“These are two examples of two young men with different levels of support and help. Both cases were resolved appropriately with happy endings. But we hope that this does not become the exception. We want to avoid these incidents, but we must work together to make sure that when these incidents happen, everyone rises to the occasion to prevent the hate from spreading. That should be the norm. It’s not going to happen by itself. People have to think through it, piece by piece, together.”

Words he heard last year at the Jewish Community Center memorial service for murder victims continue to speak to him now.

“We need to get to a point when there is a bully in the school or anywhere, you can’t just look away. You can’t just wait until later. You act now. I take a stand for anyone who is bullied or oppressed. We all need to say that. We need a groundswell from different people in the community,” Elbayoumy said.

Malik returned to school on Wednesday. Things are getting back to normal. He’s back to doing the things he loves — watching the Chiefs, playing soccer and basketball, listening to Drake and logging into Twitter and Snapchat. He’s a junior with dreams of going to USC or UCLA. He wants to go into orthopedic medicine one day. He’s glad to be back in school and in his favorite classes, math and history.

“Lots of students are reaching out to me and apologizing for what happened to me,” Malik said. “A lot of people gave me hugs. Kids told me they have my back. That made me happy and more comfortable returning to school.”

Malik knows there is work to be done.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” he said. “People said they would have killed themselves if what happened to me had happened to them. That is depressing. Schools and parents should be more involved in raising awareness across the nation. There should be a talk before each school year about equality and what to do when bad things happen.”

More than that, he’s calling on kids to learn his lesson:

“Choose better friends,” he said. “If they make fun of your race or your religion or anything, they are not your friends. And we have to stand up for each other. We have to speak out and support one another, 100 percent.”

Standing up for what’s right and lending a hand in the face of adversity? That’s not a Muslim thing, a Christian thing, a black or a white thing. It’s a human thing.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or email josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

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