SARATOGA SPRINGS — Aya Awawdeh is an honors student, a soccer fan, and an ice cream lover. When the Saratoga Springs High School junior decided to start wearing a hijab in the seventh grade, it had a huge impact on her life. Nearly every day she fields questions and comments from her peers about her faith. Some are innocent, or curious. Others are hurtful.
“Just last week, my sister overheard somebody saying that they feel uncomfortable around Muslim women in a hijab because they’re afraid they’ll blow up the school,” Awawdeh shared with an audience of over a hundred people at a Voices for Unity event at the school.
“I don’t even have words for this. I lived in one of the most intense conflicts worldwide, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but the political circumstances never made me question how I viewed other faiths,” said Awawdeh, a Muslim immigrant. “Our behavior is the only way that we judge people.”
Voices for Unity, presented by the high school’s Amnesty International Club, featured a panel of speakers on LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, and refugee rights. The goal of the forum was to bring people together in advocating for a more inclusive community.
“These are extremely personal topics for all of us. Sharing your thoughts and experiences in such a public forum can be very emotionally exhausting,” said Abdul (Abude) Alasaad, a Skidmore College student and Syrian refugee. Alasaad was one of four panelists that also included Awawdeh, Lyndon Cudlitz of the Capital Region’s Pride Center in Albany, and Julie Southwell of Amnesty International in Boston.
The speakers agreed that panels such as this one are important because listeners can hear from people who are very different from themselves and find some common ground.
Cudlitz spoke about the LGBTQ community and the history of the movement, and Southwell described the scope of work done by Amnesty International.
“These are human rights issues,” said Southwell, who helped establish the Amnesty International Club at the high school. “It’s not about politics, or a few people who are mad.”
While each panelist offered a different perspective, their messages were all about the things in life that we can—and cannot—control.
“The biggest difference between me and anyone in this room is the random accident of birth,” said Alasaad, who was born and raised in a refugee camp in Damascus. “And it’s this random accident of birth that can determine your fate for your entire life.”
There was a flood of questions from the audience, which consisted of students, faculty, parents, and other members of the community, all wanting to know what they could do to help.
“It’s not enough to call yourself an ally,” said Cudlitz. “‘Ally’ is not an identity. ‘Allyship’ is an action.”
The panelists explained that actions such as attending events like Voices for Unity are a good start, but there’s more that can be done, such as writing letters, signing petitions, and joining local lobbying efforts.
“We have to stay informed and engaged,” said Southwell. “Not just for tonight.”