BY CELESTE CARROLL —
When Tala Abu Zahra, senior, moved to Shorewood from Amman, Jordan, two years ago, she never expected her new home to be so different, culturally and socially. After her father decided to study at UWM, she and her family settled in Shorewood after hearing about the good schools in the community.
“Everything is new. It’s a completely different society, completely different people, different culture and traditions … [My family] found that people here are so friendly; we didn’t expect that,” Abu Zahra said.
Abu Zahra said that her home country differs from Shorewood in many ways. For one thing, the schools are different. Abu Zahra’s school in Jordan included grades one through 12 and consisted only of girls. Her weekends included Friday and Saturday off, and she said Thursday nights are usually reserved for seeing friends, while Friday nights are for family and Saturday, school work.
“Every day of the week we take an English class. You don’t get to choose which classes you want to take; everybody takes the same classes. We have seven classes a day, for all the subjects, and every day is different than the other,” Abu Zahra said. “For example, physics. You’d take physics Monday and Tuesday [only]. The other day you would take chemistry, the other day you take biology.”
Abu Zahra also said that they only have gym class once a week, and that there is a bigger focus on academics rather than physical education and sports. She went on to describe her home country, and how the people there are as friendly as she finds them here.
“Jordan is a small country in the Middle East. It has very wonderful places; it has very old places; it has one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra; it has the Dead Sea, one of the lowest points on earth … There are a lot of tourists there,” Abu Zahra said.
Most people would agree that moving to a new school is a hard thing to do. Add that to moving to a new country as a teenager, and the situation becomes more complicated. However, according to Amanda Krueger, ELL teacher for SIS and SHS, Abu Zahra has adjusted to the new culture while holding onto her roots.
“It’s hard to move to a new country, especially as a teenager. It’s a challenge to assimilate into the culture and make friends,” Krueger said. ”She’s done a really good job of retaining that ‘Jordanianism’ and assimilating to being in an American high school, both at the same time.”
Abu Zahra, who is Muslim, is currently the only student at Shorewood High School who wears a hijab, a veil or scarf worn by some Muslim women that covers parts of the head and chest. Abu Zahra said that when she first came to the United States and Shorewood, she did not feel out of place wearing her hijab, but wearing it at the high school made her feel different at first.
“The hijab is a huge part of our religion. The purpose [of the hijab] is that you want people to look at you in a respectful way,” Abu Zahra said. “When I first came [to Shorewood], I felt so different in Shorewood [High School], because I was the only one wearing [a hijab], but then I just realized that people [here] don’t judge you on how you look. I didn’t see that anyone here saw me from different from any other girls.”
Abu Zahra’s faith is important to her. Islam, she says, is based on loving principles, and the religion itself is often depicted negatively, especially in the American media, where it is often wrongly generalized as being a religion of violence and hatred. But Abu Zahra said that Islam is more peaceful than most people think, and that small extremist groups and terrorists are not representative of the religion itself.
“Islam is built on peace, loving between each other. Some people look at Islam in a different way than what we see. They see violence; they don’t see a good part of Islam,” Abu Zahra said. “If you went to the Middle East, [which] has a … majority of Muslims, you do not see or hear what you hear [in the United States]. [Muslims] don’t have violence between each other like people think. The news [often destroys] the good name of Islam; [the news shows] the bad parts, not the good parts of Islam.”
While Abu Zahra said she has not experienced any instances of Islamaphobia in the United States, she says she, and other Muslims, begin to feel a little less safe when people begin to view them differently because of their faith. However, Abu Zahra says she is proud of her faith and of who she is.
“When [Muslims] start hearing about all the attacks, I think most of the girls that are wearing hijabs like me begin to feel like there’s a little bit of danger, like people will begin to see them differently, like you are a part of [the attacks],” Abu Zahra said. “I want people to look at me for who I am … I want people to look at what my character is.”
But Abu Zahra said she and many other Muslims feel safe in the community of Shorewood, and that she feels like she belongs here. She said that the ELL class at the high school has brought another sense of community to her time at the high school.
“[ELL] is a class of multicultural students, … each student is from a different country, a different culture, a different religion. But in this class, we all feel like we all came here for the same reason; we all feel like this class is our own room, like we belong,” Abu Zahra said. “Like Leena [Saifuddin, sophomore] — she is from Saudi Arabia — but these past two years [have made me feel like we are sisters]. We share our thoughts; we share everything between each other. We are so close to each other in this class.”
Saifuddin, who described Abu Zahra as a loving and trustworthy friend, also said that she found Americans to be very friendly upon moving here. One difference she noticed was regarding the weather.
“I moved here two years ago, and I love Shorewood. I like … [how] people here are very friendly… Everything is different, [but] for me, the biggest difference is the weather. In Saudi Arabia, it’s always very hot, and it rarely rains,” Saifuddin said.
Next year, Abu Zahra plans to attend Cardinal Stritch University. While she is excited for the future, she also said she will miss Shorewood and her time here at SHS.
“Shorewood is one of the best schools I have ever been to. All of the staff, all the students are very respectful and [the students] are here for each other,” Abu Zahra said. “Next year I am going to Cardinal Stritch, but I am so sad that I am going to leave. Everyone has been here for me at this school.”