When Amnah Dhailia was 7 or 8 years old, she joined her mom at a meeting at an Islamic Center in Chicago, where they lived at the time. As her mom’s meeting stretched on, Amnah climbed onto a shelf and picked up a book — she couldn’t help herself.
“I shouldn’t have read it at that age, there were a lot of pictures in there I shouldn’t have seen,” Amnah said. Written by a Muslim author, the book was about the genocide committed by Nazi Germany during World War II. “It didn’t faze me; I just read it.”
And she hasn’t stopped reading. She reads books about physics and astronomy, religion and history, fiction, instruction manuals, anything she can get her hands on. When she was in elementary school, she used to climb to the top of the playground during recess and read.
“My ideas are a little skewed because I read too much,” Amnah said earlier this spring. “I think reading should be a religion, and we should all do that.”
On Thursday, 16-year-old Amnah became the first high school graduate from Annur Islamic School in Colonie. Amnah, who will attend The College of Saint Rose on a full scholarship in the fall, plans to study psychology and computer science. Like her mom, Annur Vice Principal Elizabeth Zahdan, Amnah is graduating high school in just three years — a feat made all that much harder by the Arabic, Quran and Islamic Studies classes she took on top of the traditional high school courses.
“In ninth grade, we had 14 or 15 classes,” she said. “We didn’t even have lunch, we were so busy.”
She applied to more than 10 schools, including the University of Chicago, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union College, the University of Albany and more. She won scholarships and awards and showed the rest of the students in the tight-knit school that finishing early and strongly is possible.
“I’m happy to declare that this our first time we have a graduate from high school,” Annur Principal Walid Hawana said proudly Thursday morning as he opened the school’s annual award and graduation ceremony, which usually just marks the end of fifth and eighth grade. “A student dedicated to her class work said she wanted to graduate in three years and she did.”
The small group of Annur graduates — nine fifth-graders, five eighth-graders and Amnah — proceeded into the ceremony held at the Islamic Center of the Capital District as parents and classmates applauded. Sitting on stage beneath a large Annur banner, the fifth-graders wore navy blue caps and gowns, the eighth-graders wore silver and Amnah wore a gold gown and cap, a white head scarf billowing up and around her neck from beneath her gown.
Amnah sat patiently as Hawana, her dad, the school board president and a handful of guests delivered speeches and offered advice. At times she bounced her leg up and down but mostly she revealed little emotion beyond the focused determination that led her to that day.
“Be a good Muslim, be a good student, but be a good human being first,” Zubair Ahmed, treasurer of the Islamic Center, told the students. “Be a good human being and the rest will fall in line. You can be anything you want here; the sky is the limit and don’t forget that.”
The eighth-grade students, in a video they had produced and aired at the graduation ceremony, passed on their collective wisdom to the younger students.
“You are brighter than you believe, stronger than it may seem and smarter than you know,” said Elham Malik, offering advice to the younger students.
Finally, Amnah took the podium. She thanked the school’s teachers and staff and her fellow students and made the case for a school that valued hard work, devotion to faith and community. But above all, she urged her classmates to follow their hearts.
“It’s not in any person to tell you how to live your life; don’t let the worst of other people’s opinion drown out your own inner voice,” Amnah said. “Somehow it already knows what you want to become.”
Despite being the first high school graduate at the Capital Region’s only Islamic school, Amnah has said she doesn’t consider herself to be very religious. But her views are more complicated than religious or not religious. Amnah finds spiritual inspiration in everything she reads and learns.
“Maybe life came from small tiny particles, maybe life is dictated from some all-mighty being in the sky. It shouldn’t matter. We should care that we are all breathing the same air, we are all eating the same and we are all in this together,” she said. “Religion is something everyone should personally develop with yourself. It shouldn’t be based on what you learn or from a class or from a book; it’s between you and God.”
But she fiercely defends her Muslim faith, scoffing at the suggestion that young Muslims may be different from young Christians or young Jews or young agnostics or atheists or Buddhists — or that they should be forced to carry an extra burden of defending one of the world’s largest religions in the face of its violent perversion.
“Being a Muslim to me isn’t any different than being a teenage girl; I like music, I like social media, I’m like any other 16-year-old girl,” she said. “I wear a head scarf, I pray five times a day, I fast for Ramadan, but how different does that make me from a girl who goes to church, or wears a Jewish kippah, or an Indian bindi?”
Unfair — and unjust — as it may be, however, Amnah also recognizes that her actions will shape for good or for ill people’s perceptions of American Muslims.
“My mom has always instilled in me that you have a responsibility to act above and beyond everyone else,” Amnah said. “If you litter, it’s an act against all Muslims; if someone else litters, it’s a personal act.”
And she’s a young, whip-smart representative of her faith.
“Islam above all teaches peace. The prophet teaches us that no one is better than anyone else, and we practice this so much,” Amnah said. “All religions can be misused in a way to condone violence and bloodshed — the only way you can have a perfect religion is by focusing on yourself and not other people.”
At Thursday’s ceremony, Annur leaders placed a fundraising solicitation on audience chairs, asking families and friends of students and community members to purchase a brick to support new construction the school hopes to begin next year. The school is looking to expand its physical footprint into land between the current school and Central Avenue. They were selling $500 “bricks” with the aim of selling 12,000 total bricks — or $6 million.
“Join this noble goal … to build and protect the future of our local Ummah,” the plea said. In Arabic, Ummah means community and that’s what the school is trying to build.
At Annur, students in pre-kindergarten learn to read and write — both in English and Arabic. First-graders learn to grow plants and the outlines of the scientific method. The school, which is nationally accredited, encourages its students to participate in the Intel Science Competition and history and geography bees. It hosts book fairs and blood drives, as well as a Quran and Islamic studies competition.
The daily rhythms of Annur School unfold like any school: Students shuttle from class to class with stacks of books and binders; they fight with lockers, gossip about classmates, worry about friends, stress about tests. But from the small, tight-knit classes to the daily afternoon prayers, navy and white uniforms and the hijabs that girls wear as a symbol of modesty and dignity, the faith that serves as the school’s foundation permeates every classroom, desk and locker.
Some students — or their parents — drive more than an hour each way to receive the Islamic education offered at Annur. Brothers Nazim and Naim Wali, who just complete ninth and 10th grade, respectively, leave their home in Hudson by 6:45 a.m. to make it to school.
They appreciate that the school is “more connected” to their religious faith, while still providing the fundamental lessons expected of all American students as they progress toward college and careers.
“In public schools they don’t do much unless you ask for it,” Naim said. “Here, they really care for you; we are going to graduate in three years because they have already planned it all out for us. In public school, they expect you to take the course and pass or fail.”
The small classes, sometimes as few as three or four students in the oldest grades, make for deep ummah.
“Our classrooms, we have a strong connection with one another,” said rising eighth-grader Mohammad Dhailia, Amnah’s younger brother. “Our class is the least dramatic.”
“We’re loud,” said Samyah Algabyali, also going into eighth grade with Mohammad.
“But we are loud,” Mohammad agreed.
In December, a few days after now-presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump announced a plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, a first-grader at the Annur said he heard on the news that a man wanted to kick Muslims out of the country, displaying noticeable distress and confusion. “I don’t know his name … but he is crazy,” the young student said.
“As much as we try to keep it outside, the children have these innocent questions or this fear in their hearts,” said Zahdan, Annur’s vice principal.
But the students were strong and resolute in their opposition to Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and incendiary proposal — a proposal he had walked back slightly in the spring, calling it just a “suggestion,” before doubling down again after this month’s attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando by a Muslim.
Students at Annur, some as young as seventh-graders, pointed to the U.S. Constitution as the same document that gives Trump the right to say what he says but protects their freedom of religion. But at times, the rhetoric is frightening to Muslims, who feel a growing sense of anti-Muslim attitudes and fear for the safety of their community.
“To me I think it’s impossible to do that — it says so in the constitution,” Mohammad said.
“Muslims are doctors and engineers. What are you going to do without an iPhone; kick out all of the immigrants and Hollywood will be empty, no more movies; the hospitals will shut down.”
To Amnah, Trump is both a sideshow and a real and present danger. On the one hand, she dismisses his comments but on the other hand fears what he represents and the broad support he has gained.
“We all talk about Donald Trump constantly,” Amnah said.
“It’s not because we believe him; it’s because we all want to laugh. I think he is disgusting; he has not left a single group he has not attacked.”
[The younger students] understand the fact that Donald Trump can’t do anything; we are all American citizens. Even If he kicks out all of the Muslims, who is he going to have … that’s all of the IT specialists, and professors and GE engineers and doctors? So what? That’s his loss.”
“Donald Trump: he’s an immigrant himself,” her brother Mohammad added for good measure.
Well, at least his family is.
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.
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