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Meet the Bronx Teen Organizing the Mass Student Walkout in NYC

Feb 6 2017 6:10 PM
Meet the Bronx Teen Organizing the Mass Student Walkout in NYC

Photo by Bryan R. Smith

Though still in high school, Hebh Jamal has spent the last two years actively fighting Islamophobia. In the week since Donald Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven majority Muslim countries, Jamal has put her effort into organizing a New York City-wide student walkout. We caught up with her to see how she keeps herself and those around her motivated in their activism.

Seventeen-year-old Hebh Jamal is quickly emerging as a young leader in the fight against Islamophobia. As President Donald Trump ushers in a heightened wave of Islamophobia with his push to instate a travel ban for people from seven majority Muslim nations, including those seeking refuge from terror and violence, her work is more necessary than ever.

Jamal became politically active in 2015, after she was interviewed by the New York Times during her sophomore year of high school. The piece asked the then 15-year-old Muslim American student to describe her fears and experiences of harassment and Islamophobia in a post 9/11 world, as someone who was too young to even remember the 9/11 attacks. After the piece was published, Jamal, who was raised in the Bronx, was asked to speak at a local high school. In the two years since, she has organized protests, spoken at rallies, and continued to be a strong progressive voice in the resistance against Trump's anti-Muslim threats and rhetoric.

The past two weeks—during which the country watched as the Trump Administration implemented a Muslim ban, thousands of people across the country took to the streets to resist it, and Judge James Robart effectively halted the executive order—has been an extremely busy time for Jamal. Apart from attending numerous marches and speaking to thousands at rallies protesting Trump and the Muslim ban, she has spent the rest of her time organizing a New York City-wide student walkout, set to take place on Tuesday, February 7 at 12:30 PM.

We spoke to the Palestinian-American Muslim activist about how she has managed to not only mobilize herself but inspire New Yorkers young and old to join a movement of resistance.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Broadly: How did the idea of the walkout come about?

Hebh Jamal: I actually helped organize a walkout a couple months ago right after the election, so I was kind of familiar with its symbolism. I realized that this ban affects thousands of immigrant students in this country. We should be able to have a say and voice our opposition. I then had a meeting with students from my school and I was like, "Here's the situation. We need to do something." We had a meeting after school and students were totally supportive and also felt the need to do something. We were looking at the civil rights movement and how there were sit-ins and walkouts and how students were on the forefront of the movement. I thought that we needed to do the same. It needs to be on our terms because we're going to be the ones most affected by any decision. We're going to be living in it longer than anyone else, so we wanted to do a walkout.

I always hear from people, "Why can't you just do it after school?" It doesn't have the same significance. I always frame it in the terms of labor. When you're a worker and you want to strike, you're doing it as a disruptive force of your labor. "I'm not going to continue as if this is normal right now because it's not." I feel like it's the same for students. We're part of this kind of workforce. So if we're going to protest something it makes sense to disrupt it and be part of a movement. We can't just continue on normally with our lives and do it after school.

Read More: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most

What was your reaction to federal Judge James Robart's decision [to block the Muslim ban]?

I wasn't necessarily like, "Oh this is so great, this is it!" It was something that made me feel like, "Okay, this country may actually have some sort of change or movement going on." We talk about the Occupy Movement—how that only lasted a couple months, but it changed the perception of income inequality. It's starting the conversation of wanting this country to be better, but finally on our terms. That is something that makes me really happy to hear. I think we need to capitalize on this momentum. I think protests and the total outrage were what made the judge and parts of government realize it may take sacrificing your job. I want more of that: people willing to risk something for the greater good. That is really appealing to me—that we're willing to put ourselves on the line and be on the forefront of this movement.

Can you talk about the risks associated with the student walkout you helped organize?

What's interesting is for the walkout there's actually tests that day, quizzes. You need to have some element of risk. So whenever a student says, "Oh, but this teacher assigned a test that day I'm like.. okay?" I will never blame that teacher or say that they're wrong or it's unfair because the idea of a walkout or a protest is the idea that you need to have some sort of sacrifice. When workers are on strike, they're sacrificing allowance. When we're on strike, we're sacrificing a grade for that day. There needs to be some sort of risk and sacrifice in order for change to happen.

Are you hopeful when you look to the future?

Yeah I am. In Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, the first line is, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Martin Luther King was asked if he would live in any other time if he could and he said, no I would not, I would live right now. It really is the best and worst of times. The sixties were the best of times and the worst of times. The worst in the injustices that were happening, but the best in how much change was happening. I am hopeful because if you're not hopeful then what else do you have?

There needs to be some sort of risk and sacrifice in order for change to happen.

What are your personal hopes for the future.

That's the question I always ask myself. I always wanted to be a teacher, actually. I'm really passionate about education and I feel like teachers have really shaped how I view the world. They've been my mentors and I really wanted to reciprocate that when I'm older. But I also feel like a part of me wants to be involved directly [with activism]. One day in office is like a hundred days on the streets; you can enact so much more change like that. What would probably make me happier is being a teacher, but maybe I'll do both. I don't really know right now.

Are you planning on going to college?

Yes.

Do you know where yet or what your major will be?

No I do not. I'm still waiting to hear back. I'm going into school undecided. I'm just going to feel it out.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I just want to say for me personally that I have gotten interview requests for the past week and I know it's an interesting story because of my age, but it's a movement of thousands, and I want to emphasize it isn't about one person. I wanted to mention that, although it's really great that I'm able to have a platform that a lot of Muslim women are not able to have, I really want to use it to emphasize that it needs to be a movement.

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