by Sharayah Lane
As the bus pulls up to the curb Ahlaam Ibraahim steps on. She walks down the isles and is greeted by the “normal” gawks of strangers as she finds a seat. More people load onto the bus at every stop, scampering to find a place to sit, and yet there remains a noticeably empty seat next to Ahlaam. Riders stand on this nearly jam-packed bus but the seat remains empty. Could it be their fear of a Muslim woman in a hijab or do people really just feel like standing uncomfortably today? There is never a way of telling exactly why people do what they do on bus.
But if their distance is in fact due to her hijab it is truly their loss. Some uninformed stranger missed the opportunity to possibly have a conversation with and learn from an inspiring and powerful young leader from Rainier Beach. In addition to her many accomplishments within her community, Ahlaam Ibraahim is working to forever change the narrative of what it means to be a Muslim and the experience of Islamophobia in Seattle and worldwide. And all before she is set to graduate from high school.
On May 14 Ahlaam and other young organizers held the second annual Islamophobia Awareness Day event in Seattle’s Pike Place Park. The event held youth-led workshops covering topics of: women’s rights in Islam, History of Islamophobia, Islam’s stance on terrorism and Islam’s contribution to society. The purpose of the event was to help the wider public grasp a better understanding of the religion through education and interaction. Ahlaam knows the impact was profound for all who participated. “Last year this group of girls from Canada, who had never met a Muslim, came up to me and were so excited after the workshop. They learned so much and were so grateful.”
It is truly inspiring how impactful proximity can be. Ahlaam’s goal is to create safe spaces for all people to come together and learn from one another. The event was a successfully attended, with hopes to expand it to reach even more people next year.
Ahlaam grew up in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood and spoke Somali at home. She went to a private Islamic school throughout elementary and middle school learning the primary tenets of Islam and studying Arabic.
Ahlaam’s parents had particular aspirations for their daughter. They wanted her to continue her education in either law, engineering, medicine or teaching. But from a young age Ahlaam found a passion in journalism and has since been determined to create a future for herself in a field where Muslim women have little visibility.
After being taught in an Islamic school for most of her life, Ahlaam migrated to Rainier Beach High School. It was her first time going to public school and the culture shock took a while to set in. “At the Islamic school we had always been taught to be super respectful to our elders, so when I went to Rainier Beach and saw how some of the students were acting I couldn’t believe it at first.” But Ahlaam’s classmates proved to also be very respectful of her and her religion.
Entering her sophomore year Ahlaam restarted the school’s newspaper and became editor-in-chief of The Viking Shield. She began by covering the championship run of the boy’s basketball team and remained committed to sports journalism. Later that year she interned at KUOW where her love for radio was ignited. She followed that up as a junior by interning with USA Today sports. After spending most of her high school career focused on sports reporting, Ahlaam gained an interest in international issues and educating people about Islamaphobia
While on a trip to Holland, she was inspired by the international news coverage of CNN. “I could just see that everyone was watching this and taking it seriously. I wanted to do stuff like this.” That was how Ahlaam knew in what direction she wanted to take her love for journalism.
But throughout her life Ahalm was told by several people that she could not be a journalist because she was Muslim. She had never seen a Muslim woman covering the news in her own neighborhood. Now she had to make a decision whether she wanted to continue this work. After giving it a bit of thought, she arrived at the conclusion it journalism was exactly what she wanted to do.
Her parents always instilled in Ahlaam the importance of doing work that would help other Somali people. Journalism has fulfilled that goal in allowing her to represent her people in a positive light.
While there has been widespread coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis, Ahlaam quickly noticed that there was little in the way of the thousands of Somali refugees who are also fleeing their country, many losing their lives in the process. So, she began reporting.
After locating a man in Somalia through Twitter, Ahlaam uncovered one purpose behind mass migrations. “He told me that Somali people don’t just need people to send them money but that they need jobs.” Telling this story, along with constantly giving voice to the Somali community, at a time when they have been in the shadows of international headlines is the type of work that will continue to set Ahlaam apart as a journalist.
She has also started focusing on media portrayals of her Rainer Beach home. “I’ve seen how the media demonstrates the Rainier Beach community and the neighborhood. I want to be their voice.”
Ahlaam will be attending the University of Washington in the fall and plans to pursue her education in international business and marketing. She also will continue her work of curbing misconceptions about Islam by continuing to train youth and adults alike on what she says is the truth about Islam.
She hopes the National Day of Islamophobia Awareness happens every year for the forseeable future. She is also will not be backing down from systems that work to keep her and her community oppressed.
Young leaders, like Ahlaam will be the ones to change the future of this country and the world. If you’re every fortunate enough to be riding the bus with her, and there’s an empty seat next to her, you’d be wise to take it. Getting to know her is one of the best things you could possibly do.