The Muslim student experience
Author: Harry Esteve, photos by NachCo
Posted: May 23, 2016

Seen as outsiders or worse, Muslim students seek acceptance

LIKE MANY of her Portland State classmates, Tahmina Karimyar spent finals week of winter term holed up in the main campus library, books open, knee-deep in the details of advanced biology. Unlike most of her classmates, however, Karimyar took regular breaks to find a quiet space to pray.

“It does often shock people that I pray five times a day,” she says. As a devout Muslim, she works the rituals of Islam into her daily life as a student.

Those rituals, and other experiences of being Muslim on campus, have drawn a spotlight at PSU and at campuses across the country, where tensions over race, ethnicity and religion are on the rise. Many Muslims say their religion has been singled out by the superheated rhetoric of the presidential campaign and atrocities committed by supporters of Islamic State terrorists.

After a recent “Beyond Islamophobia” panel discussion attracted hundreds at Portland State, the question of how Muslims are treated on campus took on new relevance. Interviews with PSU students, faculty, staff and alumni paint a picture of a largely tolerant campus—but one where slights, bias and “microaggressions” are part of life. Nearly all agree there is plenty of room for improvement.

Karimyar, whose parents fled Afghanistan, grew up in Beaverton and attends the local mosque. Because she doesn’t wear a headscarf, few are immediately aware of her background.

“The hijab is synonymous with Islam,” says the junior pre-med student. “So I’m treated ‘normally’ as opposed to someone who shows the faith.” On the other hand, she says, when people find out she is Muslim “I’m defined as less faithful than my friends. It’s really frustrating.”

HANAN AL-ZUBAIDY, who graduated from PSU last spring, says she felt isolated in her first years on campus. Her parents are Iraqi, and she was born in a Saudi refugee camp. She wears a headscarf, which she says attracts more than her share of unkind comments and questions.

“A lot of questions,” says Al-Zubaidy. “Rather than asking me, ‘Are you married?’ they would ask, ‘Oh, did your dad arrange your marriage?’”

There were the rare taunts of “terrorist!” when she walked down the Park Blocks. And the evangelical preachers, who would visit campus and use derogatory terms to tell her she was headed for perdition.

In her junior year, Al-Zubaidy started working for the PSU Orientation Team and formed a large network of Muslim and non-Muslim friends. That led to a deeper sense of belonging on campus that continues even though she has moved on. After getting her bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing sciences, she is looking at entering a master’s program in applied behavioral analysis.

“When I got an email about the Islamophobia discussion, that made me really happy,” Al-Zubaidy says. “I wish it would have happened during my four years there.”

Carmen Suarez, PSU’s vice president for Global Diversity and Inclusion, says the concerns expressed by Muslim students are real. Reported bias complaints include classroom interaction, sidewalk encounters and emails that cross the line, she says.

“We immediately investigate every complaint,” Suarez says. “My favorite sentence of all time is: You’re not defined by what happens to you, you’re defined by how you handle it. That applies to Portland State.”

Her office also offers ongoing educational outreach to increase multicultural understanding. “PSU has to be a leader that says, ‘When it comes to inclusion, there is no compromise.’ We have to work harder.”

PORTLAND STATE has a long history of attracting students from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, says Shpresa Halimi, program administrator and outreach coordinator for the Middle East Studies Center. Yet, she says, there’s a noticeable “disconnect” among all levels at the University on how best to accommodate the broad range of Muslim students.

Halimi spent two months interviewing students, faculty and staff for a presentation at a regional conference on “challenges and opportunities of supporting students from the Middle East.” She drew a number of conclusions from her research.

Muslim students, she found, note a lack of halal (permitted) food on campus; insensitivity during Ramadan; lack of single-sex student accommodations and lack of a Muslim chaplain. Faculty, meanwhile, point to their own concerns about Muslim students, such as difficulties with critical thinking, expressing opinions in class, and classroom tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim students and between Muslim students who follow different branches of Islam.

“There are some gaps in there that need to be filled,” Halimi says. Nonetheless, she says, “PSU is perceived as a very welcoming place. From what I’ve read about other campuses, we’re way ahead.”

AMONG THOSE who would agree is Bashar Al-Daomi, an Iraqi doctoral student whose specialty is wastewater engineering. After spending four years as a teaching assistant at the University of Baghdad, where he had to be much more guarded with what he said, he sees PSU as an oasis of tolerance in an often intolerant world.

When Al-Daomi first arrived in Oregon, he lived with a Christian family that went out of its way to ensure he was able to practice his faith. “I got a warm welcome from my adviser. I don’t know if he was Christian or Jewish or what.”

He later became a mentor for other international students, spending time with students from Canada, China, India and Vietnam.

“That was a life-changing experience,” he says, as he observed students from around the world, of multiple religions, all showing respect for him and for each other.

Al-Daomi takes a philosophical view of life as a Muslim student in a largely non-Muslim university.

“College is not just giving us technical knowledge, like how to build a better water treatment plant,” he says. “It also teaches us to accept each other.”

Harry Esteve is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Captions: (Left) Tahmina Karimyar finds that friends define her as “less faithful” when they find out she is Muslim. (Center) The identifying headscarf worn by Hanan Al-Zubaidy ’15 has led to unkind questions and taunts. (Right) Bashar Al-Daomi has found tolerance and respect in Portland and on campus.