The Only Muslim on the Quad
Walking around the George Fox University (GFU) campus, one is bound to see many baseball caps, a few beanies, and maybe a couple odd umbrellas. But only one student at GFU wears the hijab, the traditional Islamic head covering for women, and her name is Asma Al-Harami.
Al-Harami is, in all likelihood, the only Muslim attending GFU.
In January 2016, Al-Harami arrived in Oregon from Qatar two days before the semester began. Her closest friend was 3,000 miles away in Boston, Mass. “It’s going to be an interesting adventure,” Al-Harami said as she stepped off the plane.
Though her first time on the west coast, this was not her first time in the United States. The twenty-one year old spent seven months at a language center in Boston a year earlier. She is the first person in her family to ever travel to the United States.
Her friends in Qatar told her she was crazy for wanting to study in America. They could not understand why a Muslim girl would want to leave behind the personal chefs, maids, and drivers they all enjoyed in Qatar.
“I didn’t like the idea of waking up with everything prepared for me,” Al-Harami said. “I want to work hard.”
Al-Harami did not tell her friends she was applying to study in Boston, and still did not tell them until she was getting on the plane to leave.
“They were shocked,” Al-Harami said. “But then they became really supportive.” Her dad always supported her as she followed her dreams. When he was eighteen, he became the only child in his family to leave Iran and pursue a better life in Qatar.
Now, nearly two decades later, here Asma Al-Harami was following in her father’s footsteps. Al-Harami left her four siblings and her two parents to pursue her dream to study in the United States.
“I feel like my dad worked really hard for us,” Al-Harami said. “I wanted to prove all he worked for was not for nothing.”
But the United States was not as accepting as she had hoped.
During a layover in Chicago, Al-Harami was detained in the airport and made to wait in a room with three monitors who replayed the coverage from the San Bernardino shooting.
Al-Harami was tired and angry. “What do you want me to say?” she asked. “Like, oh yeah, I can relate?”
In America, wearing the hijab marks a woman. There are many Muslim women, including many of Al-Harami’s friends, who decide not to wear the hijab, but she has made a conscious choice to wear the head covering as a sign of devotion to Islam.
Even on the GFU campus, Al-Harami understands her hijab is a barrier preventing normal, day-to-day interactions with other students. Around the hijab, students are often cautious and uncertain.
For a brief time during the spring 2017 semester, Al-Harami decided to take off her hijab.
“I wanted to experience not being a hijabi here in the States,” Al-Harami said, referring to the Muslim women who wear a hijab.
With a wry smile she added, “A lot of people thought I was going to convert to Christianity when I took it off.” The effect was immediate. Classmates whom she had seen all semester suddenly said hello and even complimented her hair, asking if it was naturally curly. Students would smile at her as she crossed the quad.
For a short time, Al-Harami felt like she fit in. But that moment was short-lived. She put the hijab back on.
“You are not the person to do things to make people to like you by changing you,” Al-Harami told herself.
This semester, the familiar blend of cautiousness and curiosity colors Al-Harami’s conversations with her peers.
One woman, with whom Al-Harami had two classes, nervously approached her and said, “I want to ask you a question, but I don’t want to be mean.”
Al-Harami smiled and encouraged her to ask.
“I’m just curious how long your hair is,” the girl asked.
The Qatari student laughed and proceeded to show her a picture of her hair, and offered to show it to her.
Not every interaction at GFU is as simple or child-like as the classmate who asked to about her hair.
One art professor asked Al-Harami how her faith was shaped coming to a Christian university with a predominantly Christian student body. Al-Harami told the professor living here had made her faith stronger because “being close to God makes me strong.”
The professor replied, “But you have to be close to the right god.”
“I just smiled at him and didn’t say anything,” Al-Harami said. “Smile and wave.”
Islam, for Al-Harami, is a way of living. It is praying five times a day. It is devotion to Allah, who guides his followers to the right path.
Along her path, full of adventure and mystery, Al-Harami has drawn on God’s strength to keep positive.
She has learned many things, most important among them how to treat people different than herself: without judgment.
“There are good Christians and there are bad Christians, just like there are good Muslims and bad Muslims.”
After nearly two years at GFU, Asma Al-Harami has some advice for the students of GFU who might not know how to interact with someone from a different faith, especially a covered Muslim woman.
“When you see someone who is not of the same religion or a different background, don’t assume things,” Al-Harami said.
“Second, smile. Maybe.
“And then just go for it.”
Reported by Josh Cayetano
Photographed by Jessica Holder