The Minnetonka Student Association, which was developed two years ago at Minnetonka Middle School East, embraces diversity in the school while uniting the student body through group discussions and basketball.
Nausheen Malik, a mother of district students, started the association after noticing her son, Sharick Malik, was struggling in school after moving from Eden Prairie Schools to Scenic Heights Elementary in Minnetonka.
Sharick told his mother he was being bullied because he’s Muslim and he was afraid to show his faith at school.
“In fifth grade at Scenic Heights Elementary, he just changed as a child,” she said. “He lost all of his friends and he became very quiet. He came to a school where there was hardly any diversity and no one looked like him. When he went to Minnetonka Middle School East, where there was a bigger crowd, he just stopped talking to me. ... I just became this concerned mom and I saw signs of him being a loner and that just disturbed me.”
She was determined to help her son and other students, Muslim or non-Muslim, who struggled with bullying or inclusion at the school.
A few years ago, she approached the head of the middle school parent teachers association for advice on starting an inclusion club. Malik said that the mother was very receptive to the idea and spoke about how her Orthodox Jewish son was bullied to the point that he almost didn’t graduate from high school.
“Minnetonka Schools are great schools, but as far as diversity is concerned they’re not really diverse and are not really celebrating their diversity either,” Malik said.
She then approached MME Principal Pete Dymit on her idea for an all-inclusive student association.
“I told him, ‘I’m here as a concerned mother and youth advocate and I’m here to start this program to help our kids feel safe and feel represented,’” Malik said. “It was started, not just for the betterment of my son, but also the whole student body. I wanted to see the whole school as one community, not as ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Yes, we have diversity, but we’re one community and one student body who wants to make the school a safer place.”
“For our Muslim students, I think for them, this club sent a message that this school is a place for them, this is a home for them, where they can be proud of their faith and that the school cares about them and the school is committed to helping them feel a part of a community and part of the school,” Dymit said.
The student association meets every Tuesday for two hours after school. The club has 13 Muslim students and eight non-Muslim students who spend the time playing basketball, doing homework, having group discussions and hosting a Muslim prayer. The members even go on field trips, including to see the film “Avengers: Infinity War.”
“I didn’t want to call it the ‘Muslim Student Association,’ I wanted to call it the ‘Minnetonka Student Association’ because I don’t want it to be just a Muslim group,” Malik said. “I want all the students to interact. The Muslim students can get together in a mosque, where as I want them to get together with each other and learn and grow together.”
The group discussions are often about school, religion, bullying or general sharing on how the students are feeling. Malik said the members discuss how they can handle situations more effectively and how their actions might affect others.
Through group discussions, Malik began to learn more about how many Muslim students struggle with mental and physical abuse from bullies. Some of this bullying included giving Muslim students pork, tempting students with food when they were fasting during Ramadan, making fun of their appearance or dress or yelling at the students “Allahu Akbar,” which is translated as “God is the greatest” and is said during Muslim prayers.
Malik said many non-Muslim students ask questions about Islam and then she and the students answer the questions. “We have to change our mindset and, if we all do, we will treat each other more equally,” she said.
“I really wanted to join the Minnetonka Student Association because it connects all my friends together at an after school program, where we get to have fun and we can learn a lesson about our religion and how to overcome problems,” said Rashid Skeik, an eighth-grade student. “This program has taught me how to overcome people who make fun of or criticize our religion. I’m more ready to handle certain situations better.”
Both Malik and Dymit said that they’ve seen positive changes from students who are addressing stereotypes and preconceived views and becoming friends as a result.
“In school, I wasn’t that courageous and I was kind of ashamed to be a Muslim, but now everybody is coming together and I feel more confident in myself,” said Sharick Malik, who is now an eighth grader.
He said he would tell a Muslim student who is struggling that they should step up and make new friends, Muslim or not, to help build their confidence.
“I’ve learned through participating in the Minnetonka Student Association that people may think and learn differently, but in the end we’re all equal and we all have the same rights,” said eighth grader Gabe Hyvonen. “This program helps everybody and it’s just a chance for people to come here and be themselves, play sports and have fun.”
The non-Muslim students also have a chance to observe the Muslim students praying. Muslims pray five times a day and two of the prayers are during school hours: The midday prayer is Salat al-zuhr and the late afternoon prayer is Salat al-’asr.
Students at all Minnetonka schools are allowed to pray, provided they doesn’t disrupt class, and typically Muslim students will pray during lunch and after school. Prayer of all faiths is allowed on campus during lunch or after school. There is a Minnetonka Middle School East’s Christian Bible study student group that meets after school.
Nausheen Malik though said the main focus of the student association is not the prayer. The five-minute prayer after school is included in the group to provide for the needs of the Muslim students. At the same time, non-Muslim students can observe or participate in their own prayer.
“I think this group has changed me by learning more things about our religion and how to live as a Muslim and it has also helped me make a lot of friends,” said seventh-grader Shahmir Khawaja. “People react differently to me now that they know I’m a Muslim and they work more to include me in things more often.”
Nausheen Malik said she encourages students to connect not just through faith but also their interests including school, sports, movies, books and music.
“The school, administration, parents and youth are involved in fighting Islamophobia and racism using the best defense there is, which is education and building relationships which promotes inclusion and celebrates diversity,” she said.
The program has expanded to Eden Prairie High School and Malik’s husband, Nadeen Malik, is also involved with the Muslim Student Association at Minnetonka High School.
Nausheen Malik said she’s interested in expanding the program and plans on working with local school districts.
Last year, she was awarded the City of Eden Prairie’s annual diversity award for starting a similar program for Eden Prairie students at a local mosque.
She also conducts diversity training for Minnetonka Public Schools’ teachers and staff members.
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