Meet Amalee Dahman, a Syrian-American woman who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Columbus. Amalee is a mother, wife, first grade teacher, and passionate champion for children’s causes. (Among other initiatives, she and her husband, Samir, cofounded an annual triathlon that raises money for sick children.) She also happens to be one of my best friends, which allows me to say with authority that she is also a master empathizer. When she witnesses someone grow teary, even a stranger in Starbucks or on TV, her eyes become glassy. Her level of empathy is that present. She touches your arm and looks right into you when she asks, “How are you doing, babe?” And she’ll call you “babe” and “hon,” and she’ll tell you that “you’re so sweet” or “that’s so kind,” and she’ll mean it, every time.
If you spend enough time with Amalee, you’ll find you’ve unintentionally adopted some of her warm mannerisms and phrases. You may even consider trying a new eyeliner – she wears the prettiest bluish one that makes her eyes pop! – you get the point. She’s your sweet, stylish friend. She’s your friend who makes you wonder if you could ever carry yourself with such humility and grace and style. But, of course, Amalee is not all sugar and style, because no fierce, intelligent woman is. My favourite Amalee, in fact, is the hold-nothing-back badass one who speaks unflinchingly about what irks her, hurts her, drives her, and moves her. These days, that list is far too long and far too heavy. At the very top: the recent Muslim travel ban and what it’s doing to her family, her friendships, and her community.
AC: What unique challenges do you face as a Muslim-American teacher and mum today?
AD: I feel I live a double identity. I have guilt in my heart at times because while I’m proud of my religion, culture, and heritage, I know I don’t always project that to others. As an educator, I’m always telling my students to be proud of where they come from and to share their unique experiences. I remind them that our differences are what make us special. Yet, I often find myself being reserved about my own traditions or religion, as if I’m afraid of being outed. I’m afraid of what people and parents may think, what they may say. Maybe they will hesitate to spend time with my family. I have this underlying fear that we are going to be unfairly labeled as “bad.” I need to walk the walk and live up to the words I preach each day in my classroom. If I can convince 6- and 7-year-olds to be proud and showcase their differences, I need to be doing the same thing.
AC: What do you think of the travel ban that has been issued against seven Muslim-majority nations?
AD: I think it’s a human injustice, driven by unfounded fears and political agendas, and it goes against who we are as Americans. We are an immigrant nation. Always have been, so this fundamentally changes us, but the thing I can’t wrap my head around is this: ISIS is made up of thugs. We all know this. 9-11, Orlando — these were catastrophic, horrible events against humanity. These individuals induced panic and pain. They’re despicable. But why don’t we also call the perpetrators of Sandy Hook and movie theatre shootings terrorists? How are they not terrorists? It has NOTHING to do with religion. And still, innocent people, often women and small children who have absolutely nothing to do with their country’s turmoil, seek a better life and are dying in the process.
AC: Meanwhile, the current administration has emphasized that this is in no way a “Muslim ban.”
AD: Honestly, this insults our intelligence. The ban only applies to Muslim-majority nations, and, by its own terms, makes exceptions for the minorities (meaning non-Muslims) in those countries.
AC: Your own children are still very young. How will you explain the travel ban to them one day?
AD: I think it will be very important and an incredible teaching moment to have with my children. I want them to understand there was a time when some people in powerful positions tried to divide our country and make people scared of our religion. They used fear and racism to advance their own political positions. But to me, that’s not the focus. The focus and reason for telling them is so they understand to have an open mind, be mindful of situations, and be thoughtful about what you say and do. People derive support and learn from one another — in good times and in bad. I want my children to be people who bring others together, not tear them apart.
AC: How do you feel when you hear people, even close friends, say the travel ban isn’t a big deal?
AD: People have said, ‘Amalee, this has nothing to do with you,’ and that’s a heartbreaking remark because it tells me that they don’t know me as a person, and it certainly doesn’t show their sensitivity. Truth is, I feel as though Muslim-Americans have been told through legislation that we are not wanted here, and this goes against the American values with which I was raised.
AC: Is it hard to maintain friendships with people who feel this way?
AD: I want to say I’ll forgive and forget, but I think when something so catastrophic happens in your life you truly remember the people who are there for you, and, unfortunately, you remember those who were not.
AC: Have you been able to find other sources of support?
AD: I do feel supported by my colleagues, neighbours, and many friends. I’m usually a more private person, I very seldom post on social media, but I did post about my thoughts, in part to ensure other Muslim Americans I know don’t feel isolated or alone right now, and also in part to bring awareness of what me and my family are experiencing. Also, it’s a good way to remind like-minded allies to donate to the ACLU.
AC: You’ve said that the current state of affairs has left you “heartbroken.” How are you channeling those feelings into positive action?
AD: I’m truly heartbroken that our country is moving in a direction of isolation and shunning. I was raised in a society where we showed kindness to one another. I want that back — for my two children, for the kids in my class, for all Americans. So what do I do? I volunteer as Diversity Liaison for my school. I find meaningful ways for my students to celebrate each other’s uniqueness. This month, we’re posting messages of love and acceptance around our building, and writing sentiments to share over the morning announcements. I try to educate people about how Muslims do not condone terror in any way. I write Facebook posts, which is so unlike me. And I speak my mind, with friends, with acquaintances, and with you in this interview.
Photo: Amalee Dahman