Fifteen years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, Sarah Hirsch, then a first grade teacher at Princeton Friends School, felt compelled to do something. Reaching out to her counterpart at the Noor-Ul-Iman School (another young independent school located north of Princeton on Route 1 on the premises of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey), Sarah launched what has become a signature program at both schools. It started with an exchange of letters between PFS and NUI first graders, followed by an exchange of visits before the year’s end. The following year, not only did these (now) second graders continue their partnership, but the new crop of first graders began an exchange as well. The program grew as the students moved up through the grades, and when the first cohort reached eighth grade, the final visit included an exchange of gifts. The Noor-Ul-Iman students taught their partners how to write their names in Arabic calligraphy, and these were then framed to be taken home. PFS eighth graders each gave to their partners a small glass candle holder and tea light, explaining in so doing the Quaker message of carrying one’s light into the world.
And so it has gone for well over a decade. Each year, students in each grade from Princeton Friends and Noor-Ul-Iman have come together for a morning, alternating between schools from one year to the next. The hours are spent playing getting-to-know-you games, telling and listening to stories, eating a snack of cider and doughnuts, singing, and enjoying a recess game of soccer. Over the years PFS students have joined their partners for worship in the mosque, and every visit at Princeton Friends concludes with a meeting for worship during which NUI students in their uniforms and headscarves intermix with PFS children of all ages. The vocal ministry on these occasions invariably focuses on the importance of seeing people across both real and imagined differences.
Last December, the partnership between Noor-Ul-Iman and Princeton Friends School took on another level of significance. In the wake of the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, and in response to the upsurge of anti-Muslim political rhetoric broadcast through the media, we at Princeton Friends invited NUI’s head of school Eman Arafa—plus any other members of the NUI community she deemed appropriate—to come speak with us, to let us know whatever they felt we needed to know in order to stand in support of their community in these times.
What transpired turned out to be one of the most important single hours in the three-decade history of Princeton Friends School. Two days before the scheduled visit, we received a call from NUI’s head of school, explaining that she had approached her senior class to recruit a couple of students to be part of the visiting NUI contingent. Not only had she received a positive response, but all 25 seniors asked if they could come. “Would that be okay?” she asked.
And so on December 17, the entire senior class of the Noor-Ul-Iman School, their religious studies teacher, their head of school, and a handful of other administrators visited Princeton Friends School to meet with our sixth through eighth graders and as many teachers, administrators, trustees, and parents as could free themselves from other responsibilities at 9:30 that morning. All but one of the Noor-Ul-Iman seniors, having spent their elementary and middle school years at NUI, had enjoyed their annual get-togethers with our students and visited our campus during their first, third, fifth, and seventh grade years. In preparation for this visit, the NUI seniors had used their religious studies class time the entire previous week to compile a PowerPoint and oral presentation for us. It exposed the disconnect between what had been cropping up recently in the news, and what, in fact, Islam is. We launched our session with this presentation, after which we opened the floor for an extended question-and-answer period.
In the course of the conversation Noor-Ul-Iman students and teachers told stories of being the target of hostile remarks in public, or of feeling intimidated or anxious when venturing out into the world, never knowing what responses they might encounter from passersby. A young woman who lives in Princeton explained that her parents won’t allow her to go out alone after dark, and several spoke about always traveling in pairs, even to the grocery store. One young man expressed empathy for the women in his life whose Muslim identity is more visible than his. “I can be regarded as just a regular Joe,” he explained, “but my sisters, wearing the hijab, are more vulnerable.” When asked for stories of positive interactions they’d had of late, the head of school described the loving hug she received recently from the woman who serves her every morning at Starbucks, and others explained the powerful message that a smile or a nod or a sympathetic word can carry. “That’s one of the most important things you can do in these times,” several explained. “A simple smile lets us know that you are with us, when otherwise we might not be sure.”
The conversation included other matters of great concern to high school seniors. When asked what they were looking for in their college searches, given the fact that they have grown up in such a homogeneous (and therefore safe) environment, many of the NUI seniors spoke of looking for a campus with a strong Muslim presence. At the same time, as one young woman explained:
Islam is only one part of who any of us is. We’re also looking for academic programs that fit our interests, and athletic opportunities, and so much more. We’re just regular kids, like all of you, with dreams and ambitions that have nothing to do with being Muslim.
A fellow student added, “Yeah, for example today I’m not thinking about being Muslim at all; I’m just obsessing about the opening weekend of the Star Wars movie!” There were many such moments of humor during the conversation. One young woman, her head covered in the hijab, told a story about being voted as having the “best hair” among a group of mostly non-Muslim students at a recent Model UN conference in New York City.
Particularly touching were the NUI students’ responses to the question, “What do you recall from your visits to Princeton Friends when you were in elementary and middle school?” The immediate and unanimous answer, shouted out in unison, was “The cider and doughnuts!” (Happily, we had made a refreshments run to the local orchard in advance of their visit that morning!) Other recollections included playing soccer, walking around the campus talking “randomly” with a partner, sitting in meeting for worship, and feeling welcomed and not judged. When one student recalled “that song with the roots going down and the plants going up,” we all joined in an a cappella rendition of “Kindergarten Wall” to wrap up our time together.
In the aftermath of the presentation, once our students had returned to their classes, the NUI students and teachers spoke with members of the PFS community about next steps in our sister school partnership. We urged the NUI seniors to take their presentation on the road, and offered to provide contacts with other area independent schools that would welcome such a visit. We brainstormed ideas for joint service projects between our two schools, and we began envisioning ways to enable NUI/PFS partners from years past who are now in high school and beyond to reconnect with one another. We discussed ways to share positive stories about our long-standing partnership with the media. Later that day, our students wrote cards to the NUI students, thanking them for their visit, and these were delivered early the following week.
Upon our return in January from winter break, we received an email from NUI’s head of school, Eman Arafa, that included the following words:
I can’t express how wonderful last month’s experience was for our students. When we got back to the school, they asked if we could do “things like that” more often. It gave them such a boost of morale at a time when they needed it the most. Your cards are up in our school’s main lobby bulletin board for all to read. They have brought many smiles on staff, student, and parent faces. Thank you, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart.